Walakpa Zooarchaeology

Last week I went to the Alaska Marine Science Symposium 2017 meetings in Anchorage.  I’ve never gone to those meetings before, but we were presenting two posters on finds from Walakpa.

At the poster session.  Photo courtesy Raphaela Stimmelmayr.

One was on the results of the necropsy of a mummified seal found in a 1944 ice cellar.  I was excited about it because it was pre-bomb with a pretty tight date and therefore helpful for refining radiocarbon correction factors.  It turns out to be the first mummified seal reported from anywhere outside the Dry Valleys of Antarctica!  Who knew?


The second was presenting some preliminary results of investigations on a polar bear skull which eroded from Walakpa, and was recovered and turned in by Kenneth Brower.  It turned out to be somewhat unusual in shape, as well as being really big (maybe the 4th largest ever measured).  That bear must have been HUGE!



A hundred and one (roughly) moving pieces

There are a lot of things that go into a successful project.  We’ve been inventorying field gear and project supplies, getting emergency contact forms filled out, finalizing safety protocols and on and on.  Kaare Erickson is up from Anchorage for a week or so to help get the gear organized for the Walakpa season, plus another project we’re doing right after that.  He’s heading back down next weekend and will do some serious shopping (& screen building) before he comes back up for the field season.

Today we decided to try to get down to Walakpa to see how the site was.  Some folks have made it down (including someone in a truck, supposedly.  Sean Gunnells, who worked at Walakpa in 2013 came along, and we headed down on ATVs.  Alas, yesterday’s snow was not helpful, and the Honda kept bogging down, since it had less ground clearance than the Polarises.  We kept having to go up on the tundra, which made for slow riding.  We made it to Hollywood, which was probably about nine miles, or a little over halfway there, before we decided that the game wasn’t worth the candle. It would have taken all day, and we had lots of other things to get done.  It’s supposed to be warm (in the 40s) for several days, so we hope that a lot of the snow will melt and make for easier traveling.

Beach just south of Hollywood.  We got as far as the snow in the distance.

While we were on the beach, we looked for tracks.  We didn’t see any, even near a couple of areas where animals had been butchered.  All we saw was an old walrus carcass that must have been dragged up the beach by a bear, but no tracks around it.

However, we had packed lunches, so we went ahead and ate on the beach.  A little ring seal popped up in the shore lead and looked at us.

Sean looking down the beach.



In Fairbanks, looking for walrus

After a rather long, drawn-out saga, everything is in place and I can draw on funds so I can work on the WALRUS project.  The delays have been really frustrating for everyone involved.   Once I get the interns on board in Barrow, we’ll get back to going through the faunal material we have there for walrus samples.

We are trying to get samples from a wide range of sites.  Since the sampling is destructive, we don’t want to use artifacts if that can be avoided.  Ideally we want  unmodified walrus parts, bone or tooth, or if we can’t get enough of them, manufacturing discards.  As a fallback, we may wind up sampling things like shovels or bola weights, assuming we can get the museum’s permission, since they are common types of artifacts, and not diagnostic (or something that is likely to be displayed).  We currently can’t use tusk parts, since there have been no modern studies to compare their chemistry to that of bones and teeth, so interpretation of results would be problematic. (If any carvers would be able to contribute some scraps from tusks along with a sample of bone and/or a tooth from the same animal, it would be a really big help).  We are also looking for caribou or some terrestrial plant material from the same place in the site for radiocarbon dating, since marine mammals incorporate old carbon and the dates are hard to interpret.

More recent archaeological projects tend to have excavated faunal material in the same way as everything else, with decent stratigraphic control, and also tend to have brought it back from the field.  However, in the early days, that was not often  the case.  Even if material was brought back, it often wasn’t cataloged in any detail, so reports are almost no help in figuring out if there is any walrus to be had in archaeological collections.  A bit of walrus shows up in catalogs, but most of it is in the form of artifacts.  A lot of walrus artifacts (particularly bone, since ivory was clearly an item of trade) suggests that the inhabitants of a site were hunting walrus, so the potential for walrus parts to exist in the collection is there.

Many of the classic sites on the coast of  Alaska have strong indications that walrus were being caught by the people who lived there, but they were excavated decades ago, and finding suitable samples in the collections was not something that could just be done by getting someone to pull a particular bag or catalog number.  It pretty much requires looking through mixed lots of artifacts and bags of bones.  So I’m in Fairbanks doing just that.

We are mostly working in the museum, but it is closed on the weekend, so we got  permission to bring a collection of faunal material to the PI (Nicole Misarti)’s lab, and we went through it yesterday.  It took some doing, but we got though it, and should have plenty of samples.  It was an adventure.  We had 24 boxes, most of them full of bags like this:

Nicole holds a bag from which the bones on the tray burst forth when she took it out of the outer bag.
Nicole holds a bag from which the bones on the tray burst forth (like a scene from Alien) when she took it out of the outer bag.  Sadly, these were almost all ringed seal parts.  Other bags from that box are on the right.

Not all of the bags were correctly labeled, or at least the labels often didn’t specify species, just element, so we had to look.

We found a few other interesting things in the process, including this really large fish bone from Point Hope.

Really big fish bone.
Really big fish bone.
The other side of the really big fish bone.
The other side of the really big fish bone.

I’m pretty sure it’s some sort of cod (Gadid) but exactly what sort?  It’s really big.  If I have time, I’ll talk to the curator of fish, but the mission is walrus samples at the moment.

A book about Nuvuk

I made it back from DC on Thursday night.  Friday was the usual scramble after being out of town.  Saturday night was the annual meeting of the Friends of the Library.  There was a business meeting, and a potluck dinner.  But the highlight of the meeting was the guest speaker, none other than Daniel Inulak Lum, author of the book Nuvuk, the Northernmost: Altered Land, Altered Lives in Barrow, Alaska.

Dan Lum showing slides of the photos in his book
Dan Lum showing slides of the photos in his book

Dan’s family is Nuvukmiut (that’s how it is spelled in Nuvuk dialect–it would be Nuvugmiut in Barrow dialect), originally from Nuvuk.  He ran a tour company which took tourists to Nuvuk for much of the time the Nuvuk Archaeological Project was active.  While doing that, he wound up taking a whole lot of pictures.  He has some really great animal photos, particularly of bears, as well as some really beautiful landscapes shots.  His family had to move to Fairbanks for a while for reasons connected to health of a family member, so he isn’t running the tour company any more, but it gave him an opportunity to look through his pictures and he wound up writing a book about Nuvuk and life in Barrow.

When he was running the tour company, Dan gave great tours.  He really wanted to pass on accurate information to his clients, and would stop at our excavations and talk to us, so he had the latest news.  As he said in his talk, the village is no longer there (due to erosion) so all the Nuvukmiut have to remember it by is information from oral history and archaeology.  He’d always check to see if it was OK to bring the tourists over (not if we were excavating human remains), and was always willing to bring things back and forth for us in his van.  When the Ipiutak sled runners were uncovered, Dan  stood by until we had them out of the ground around 2AM (despite having had tours all day) and then drove them very slowly back to the lab at NARL, making sure that they weren’t bounced around.  It took over an hour to go the five or so miles.  He also brought pop out for the crew on warm days.

Dan showed slides of many of the photos from the book, and talked about how he came to write a book in the first place.  He was very encouraging to audience members about writing and publishing their own books.

Dan takes questions from the audience.
Dan takes questions from the audience.

I’m going to be spending a good bit of time getting ready for International Archaeology Day, which is Saturday.


A bit more about Iñupiat subsistence whaling

My post on the Anagi crew’s whale has gotten a number of comments from people who are interested, one way or another, in whales.  Some of them are genuinely interested in learning more about whales & Iñupiat whaling; others appear not to be.  I’m going to try to answer some of the questions, and provide links to sites that can give even more information.

But first,  see this Public Service Announcement.

OK, now a bit of history.  Alaska Natives (and in fact many other Native Americans and Canadian First Nations people) have been whaling for 2000 years or more, since before the Thule culture developed, based on archaeology.  Aboriginal whaling did not damage the whale stocks in any way that can be detected.  What damaged whale stocks was European (and later Euro-American) commercial whaling.  The bowhead was popular with commercial whalers because it was non-agressive and had a lot of blubber for whale oil, plus long baleen.  Most Eastern Arctic stocks were decimated by the early 19th century.

In the western North American Arctic, commercial whaler Thomas Welcome Roys first cruised north of the Bering Strait in 1848, starting a rush to catch the plentiful and naive Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort stock of bowheads on which so many coastal Alaska natives and their inland trading partners depended.  The whales soon became skittish and scarce and many Alaska Natives died of starvation.

Once oil was struck in Pennsylvania, one of the big reasons for hunting whales diminished.  But the baleen, the plates in a whale’s mouth that they use to filter-feed, was still valuable for buggy whips and corset and collar stays.  Bowheads have by far the longest baleen of any whale (15 feet or more from a big whale), so they were still hunted until those items were no longer in fashion or needed.

Many coastal Alaska Natives had become involved in commercial whaling, including shore-based commercial whaling carried out with traditional Iñupiat techniques with Yankee style harpoons, to support their families.  After commercial whaling ended, coastal whaling communities continued these hunts, combining traditional techniques and traditional and modern technology.

In the late 1970’s, some Western biologists, who were not experienced in the Arctic and knew little about bowhead whales (biologists didn’t back then) tried to count bowheads.  They believed that the whales were scared of ice!  They thought the bowheads had to travel in a lead and would come up to breathe in the lead so they could be counted.  Even if that were true, they didn’t account for the fact that there are multiple leads, and that the whales only have to breathe every so often and that wouldn’t necessarily be where the observation post was.  They came up with a count of several hundred whales, and of course, sounded the alarm.  A moratorium was declared on Alaska Native whaling in 1977 (years before the moratorium on commercial whaling, I might add).

Since many families got (and still do get today) a significant portion of their meat from whales, this was a huge problem.  Although wages may look high in places like Alaska’s North Slope, costs are high too, and many families do not have someone who is working in the cash economy and can afford to feed a family on store food and whatever else they can hunt (and of course full-time work does interfere with hunting, which was traditionally a full-time occupation itself).  Most Iñupiat had never heard of the International Whaling commission, and couldn’t understand why they felt it appropriate to starve human beings by forbidding them to feed themselves.

They were particularly puzzled because senior whaling captains and hunters who had spent many decades on the ice had observed that the bowhead population appeared to be growing from the depths it had sunk to by the end of commercial whaling.  They knew that bowheads are not scared of ice.  In fact they can breathe under quite thick ice (they become positively buoyant and use the bow on their head where their nostrils are to push up the ice, cracking enough to let air into the little tented space formed under the ice and breathe there, and then submerge and go on about their business), and that they would not restrict travel to the near shore lead, so they knew the count was wrong.

The North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management, with many cooperating researchers over the years, has been studying bowhead whales ever since.  They soon developed a much better way to count them, which is continually refined.  Counts now show an annual rate of increase of 3.2%, which is really high for such long-lived animals.

The Alaska Native Bowhead hunt is highly regulated.   The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC) manages the hunt under authority from the US government.  There is a quota of strikes (not whales taken, but whales struck so there is an incentive to land every whale struck if humanly possible), which is established based on document subsistence needs of each whaling community, in light of the population estimates. This quota is set so that communities get what they need and no more.  The harvest is considerably below what population biologists would consider a sustainable harvest if they were talking about elk, or caribou, or mule deer.  As long as something else, like marine noise or a massive oil spill in Arctic waters, doesn’t come along and decimate the population the way commercial whaling did, this is absolutely a sustainable harvest, carried out by people who entire culture is centered around that harvest.

The AEWC divides the quota between communities, based on active crews and population, and approves the transfer of strikes between communities (if, say, the ice is bad in one place and they can’t catch whales, they may transfer their strikes to a place with better conditions) since the maktak and meat is shared and everyone on the North Slope and beyond benefits if whales are taken.  Only captains and crews registered with the AEWC are allowed to take whales, and violations of rules, ceasefires, etc can and has led to punishment or suspension of the offending captain.

When a whale is taken there are traditional rules for sharing which vary by community.  In general, specific shares go the captain, the boat (itself–although obviously the boat owner disposes of the boat’s share), the harpooner, the other crew members, and the other boats which helped tow the whale back to be cut up.  Anyone who shows up to help with the butchering (even a little) gets a share.  My daughter helped a very little once when she was about 8, and she came home with a small share.  The captain’s wife and her helpers cook round the clock after the whale is ashore, and when they are ready, the captain’s flag is hoisted and anyone who wants can go and get fed (they will usually send to-go plates to house-bound Elders).

After that, the captain and crew get ready for a celebration where a great deal more of the whale is shared with whomever shows up.  People get whale meat, maktak, kidney, intestine, tail, flipper, gums, plus goose soup, mikiaq (whale blubber, meat & blood, fermented–and before you say gross, when was the last time you ate curdled drained milk with mold on it–AKA a nice Stilton or Brie?), rolls, cakes, fruit, etc.  Most families in the community go to at least one of these every year.  Many go to all of them.  The amount given to each person depends on how many in the family (and the servers pretty much know or the people sitting around do, so no one fibs).  Captains also give out meat & maktak at Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts to whomever shows up (usually much of the community), and usually will provide some for potluck and other festivities as well.  They also share with Elders & folks who need it during the year.  Most of the folks with whom it is shared share it farther.  Shares travel to Anchorage and even to the Lower 48.  Some of the people who get shares send back things like berries or smoked salmon from their area, or caribou from the interior.

None of the whale, or any other marine mammal for that matter, can be sold, with the exception that Alaska coastal Natives can use baleen or bone or ivory to make handicrafts, which they then may sell.  They are not allowed to waste the rest of the animal just to get these products.

There is a great list of links to good solid information on the bowhead whale and bowhead hunt here.

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A bit of interior decoration

We’ve added a couple of new student hire for the summer, but still have room for one or two more, so if you are interested, get in touch ASAP!

With the larger crew, we have been working on getting some of the Pingusugruk collection sorted and in proper archival boxes.  We need to move the container it was in, so we’d have to move the boxes anyway, and this way we can not only record which bag is in which numbered box, but also sort the “Tamis” bags, which are the 25% random sample drawn at time of excavation from the rest, to make future analysis easier, and find the rest of the bags from the column sample that Rebecca Connor & Angelique Neffe started on, so I can finish that analysis.  Most of this work is being done by our adult volunteers.

The students worked on this a little, mostly to get it set up so the volunteers can work easily, and also to get more room on the lab benches, so that they can work on the Nuvuk materials with no chance of things getting mixed up.  In the process, we had a number of animal bones that were collected on the beach or tundra and donated to us.  Some of them have been labeled as to species and element, and are being used to help with the preliminary sort and cataloging of the materials from Nuvuk Locus 6 midden.

There were a few things which were sort of superfluous, like a caribou skull.  The students really wanted to use it as a decoration, so with a little glue to keep the teeth in, it was suspended outside the door (using peel-off hangers of course to avoid damaging the wall.

The caribou skull
The caribou skull

Apparently, they found something else they felt was not necessary to include in the comparative collection, either because we haven’t found any (we haven’t) or because they figure everyone already knows what it is.  The next day, this is what the door looked like.

A addition to the decor
A addition to the decor
The new addition is a walrus baculum, often known as an oosik.  I doubt some of the visiting scientists know what they are looking at :-).

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A not so quick trip to Nuvuk

I got out to Nuvuk today for the first time today. The ARM project that we support want to put a flux tower at the Point to measure flux off the ocean during the open water season.  The thing is that the ideal spot for the tower is on the ridge where the Nuvuk site is.

In the past, other folks wanted to put flux towers there, but there simply wasn’t room for a tower in an area where we had already tested and recovered all the burials, and we didn’t want to chance disturbance to a burial.  Now we’ve gotten a good way ahead of the erosion, so it seemed that it might be possible.  However, I didn’t want the tower to be on top of the possible Ipiutaq structures, just in case funding for their excavation is available.  Since the tower installation involved moving a little gravel, it was important for me to be there just in case something showed up.

It took a while to get out there, since the ARM Kubota is on tracks and can only go about 15 miles an hour.  We quickly got a spot picked for the tower.  After that, I spent most of my time looking around for bears while the others started putting the tower together.  I spotted 2, a mom and a cub, who were heading to the bone pile.

Polar bears heading for a meal.
Assembling the base for the tower.
Putting the tower together.
Putting the instruments on the tower.

We decided to use sandbags for the guy-wires and then added some more on top the tracks on the base plate.  To minimize disturbance to the site, we decided fill the “sand”bags with beach gravel, and bring them up with a four-wheeler.

“Sand”bags on the Honda.

After the tower was assembled and the instruments were on, the instruments needed to be wired up.  That took a while, but I had to sick around since one of them needed to look down are gravel, so we needed to cover the plywood base plate, which meant more digging.

That gave me time to check out the area where we salvaged the Ipiutak structure last fall.  Good thing we did that last fall, because that area is gone.  There is a big notch in the bluff there, and that’s it.  It would have been a pity to lose that, because we found some very interesting things in the field and in the lab.

Where the Ipiutak structure was…

While I was getting to play, the crew was working away in the lab.  They have finished floating and sorting the materials from the fall salvage, and are moving on.  Over the winter, we’ve had several sets of visitors on short notice, which required some materials to be cleaned off benches fairly quickly.  As a result, there were a lot of miscellaneous boxes around the lab.  The crew has reorganized several cabinets and gotten most of the boxes emptied. There is plenty of bench space, so we are moving on to cataloging and marking.

Part of the hard-working lab crew (l. to r. Victoria, Trina & Trace) working on faunal remains.

About those gray whales that got stuck at Barrow a few years back…

I’ve noticed I’ve been getting more hits on search terms relating to those whales, probably since the movie “Big Miracle” just was released.  So, since I’m kinda busy with the Super Bowl, I thought I’d put up a few links to the real story.

1) Bill Hess’s blog, where he is doing a series on the whole event.  Bill took what were probably the first professional pictures of the whales, including some may probably recognize.  This features a lot of Bill’s really fine photographs.

2) An article in the Fairbanks New-Miner which has interviews with many of the folks in Barrow who were involved in the original event, including biologist Geoff Carroll.

3) An article in the Anchorage Daily News by Richard Mauer, who covered the original story and hauled out his notes to write this one.

In Praise of Dolly Vardens

I was going to continue the story of the trip to Wainwright, but then there was a knock at the door.  Mike & Patsy Aamodt have a net out by Nuvuk, and often stop by to check on the proceedings (Mike was once an archaeologist, among many other things). They stopped by on the way home from checking their net, and were kind enough to share two Dolly Vardens from their catch.

Dolly Varden heading for the pan
Dolly Varden heading for the freezer

They were alive until a couple of hours ago, and one went straight to the oven and the other got vacuum sealed and went straight to the freezer.

Super tasty!  Thanks so much to Mike & Patsy!

Dolly Varden “trout” are actually char and can either be sea-run, spending part of their lives at sea, or landlocked, spending their entire lives in freshwater.  The name comes from a character in a Charles Dickens novel, who had a polka-dot dress, and after whom a type of 1870’s fashion was named.  The fish was probably named after the fashion.

I am going to save the skeleton for a comparative specimen.

Finally, some snow! And birds at the feeder…

The Town of Ballston, where my mother lives, has been fairly lucky as far as snow this winter.  They’ve gotten some, but haven’t really been hammered.  As a result, it was a white Christmas, but only just, and the snow was getting a bit worn-looking.  The storm that has been creating havoc in the eastern US for several days was expected to miss entirely, but by Christmas it was tracking close to the coast, and so we did get some after Christmas snow.  It was a pretty decent nor’easter along the coast, but we just got outer snow bands, for a total of about 5-6″ overnight.  The trees were all snow-covered, and the bare patches and dirty spots disappeared, making everything clean & bright and new when I went out to get the paper (Paper delivery!  Something we don’t have in Barrow.  We can’t even get paper sent to the stores, apparently.  And the newspapers wonder why readership is declining…).  It’s hard not to feel optimistic when one goes out after a snow storm is over.  The winds weren’t too bad here, although we did get enough gusts to take much of the snow off the evergreens over the course of the day.

The other thing was that the snow covered many of the plants, so the seed eating birds were looking for something else, and found the seed bell we’d gotten them for Christmas.  We had a pair of cardinals, juncos, a blue jay, and tufted titmice and chickadees.  Only the latter two stuck around until I got my camera out.

Action at the seed bell.
Tufted titmouse.

As far as I could see, there were no deformed bills in the bunch, unlike the situation in Alaska, where they are becoming alarmingly frequent.

Adventures with journalists; or, I never said anything about 45,000 yr. old Eskimos

Obviously, I think that archaeology is interesting. In my experience, so do most non-archaeologists I meet. People ask lots of questions, and it’s amazing how many of them say they always wanted to be archaeologists (hey, we take volunteers!).

So, I imagine that there’s a reasonable audience for journalism (print, broadcast or Web) that covers it. The Arctic, as the canary in the climatic coal mine and home to endangered charismatic megafauna (AKA polar bears), also seems to be a hot journalistic topic. Given that Barrow is served by at least two jet flights a day and has decent connectivity, we get our fair share of journalists, and a fair number of them want to talk to me.

The public pays for most archaeology (and other science) so I think they deserve to hear what they’re paying for us to learn, especially since most people are interested in other people and their doings, as opposed to, say, permafrost or midge hatches, for which the interested audience may be smaller. So I take the time to talk to journalists. I also try to find out a bit about the journalist in question. If I get the sense that they are not very experienced with science or research, I’ll offer to at least check dates and spellings in their story before it goes to print, pointing out that that’s less embarrassing than having to issue corrections of errors later. Some take me up; some don’t.

I also take the time to attend panels on working with the media at scientific meetings. They are usually composed of a variety of people who are public information officers for scientific organizations or institutions and science journalists, often quite well-known ones who write for national science magazines or newspapers. They are all very earnest and full of good advice. They are usually amazed at the questions asked by the audience, and horrified by those of us who want to see stories prior to publication. They seem bewildered that the archaeologists making up the audience don’t all see journalists as friends and a great help.

Of course, if all journalists were like the ones on the panels, we probably would see them that way. I’ve worked with some great folks. Angelika Franz, a German writer who has done several pieces about Nuvuk, actually has a doctorate in archaeology, so she’s been great to work with, knowing what sorts of information are critical to get right, and understanding technical terms so we can concentrate on the interesting parts of the story. She has done pieces for Spiegel Online Wissenschaft, a magazine called Epoc and now she’s got a book coming out with a number of pieces she’s done.

I had great fun being interviewed (in Danish) by some Danish journalists who were retracing Knud Rasmussen’s travels across Arctic America. The story wound up mostly being about the fact that I have a complete set of the 5th Thule Report, in Barrow. We also had a nice trip to Nuvuk in the local tour van, which resulted in some good polar bear pictures for them.

Most of the others have been reasonably competent, and haven’t garbled the stories too much, although they haven’t written stories that answer the sorts of questions people ask me.

And then there are the others. There was a group of filmmakers working on video for a major producer of science programming. They had decided to focus on an ice scientist and his (cute female) grad student. It was spring, so there was not much to see at Nuvuk, but they wanted to go there anyway. They wanted to film them pulling up on snow machines. The tracks aren’t the best thing for the site, but we had already excavated the area near the bluffs, so I said that would be OK there. Of course, they didn’t like the shot, or the light, and wanted to have them coming from a different angle, and retake it, and I kept having to tell them to stay in the cleared area. Then they decided that the scientists/protagonists should start scraping away gravel from logs (actually a NARL-era sled shed base) projecting from the bluff, with their mittens. Since this is precisely what we want the public to avoid, it didn’t’ seem like a good idea to show them SCIENTISTS doing it on a reputable science TV series. I pointed that out, to no avail. So I told them I couldn’t be party to that, on film or off, and since they seemed bent on damaging the site, which belonged to my employer, I was going to have to ask them to leave.

Better yet was a Barrow reporter for the local newspaper, the Arctic Sounder. The Sounder is not a bad paper given the area it covers and the budget it has. However, I doubt that the editor considers this fellow one of his better hires. He was an odd duck. He once asked me to help him set up the Mac that the paper had given him so that he could file electronically. I got everything set up, and then went to plug the modem into the phone line (this was some years ago). He would not let me. I suggested that we could test it, and then he could plug it in to file and unplug it. No dice. He also thought there was a hole at the North Pole. He interviewed me about some work I had been doing, and in the course of the interview asked me how long people had been in the Barrow area. I said it was hard to be sure, since sea levels had risen and between that and erosion the earliest evidence was probably gone, but that there was some Arctic Small Tool Tradition (ASTt) material there, which was probably “4 to 5 thousand years old”.

Imagine my surprise at being quoted (in quotation marks, no less) as having said that there were “45,000-year-old Eskimos” in the Barrow area! I got calls from folks as far away as Pennsylvania (Tiger Burch for one) who basically wanted to know if I was off my rocker. When I suggested to the reporter that perhaps a correction was in order, he refused on the grounds that “someday they’ll find 45,000-year-old sites here, and then you’ll have been the first to say it in print.” I have heard, although I can’t confirm, that he was removed from town in a straitjacket.

And they wonder why archaeologists view journalists with a somewhat jaundiced eye…

A mystery tooth

One of the fun parts of the job is that people find all sorts of things around Barrow.  Often, they show them to me, or at least send me pictures.  In a lot of cases I can ID them, but I’m not expert on extinct fauna, and the printed/online resources available are not as good as those for modern critters.

I usually send pictures to some folks at UAF (University of Alaska Fairbanks), since they actually have a pretty good collection.  Unfortunately their current curator of mammals flatly denies any knowledge (!) of extinct animals, and doesn’t seem inclined to rural residents of the state that pays his salary by taking a peek in the collections to try to make an ID.  So I’m broadening the search.

This particular tooth was given to the current owner.  Matu believes it was found in a gravel operation near Barrow, AK.  He’s really anxious to know what it is.  If you have any ideas what it might be from, please let me know.  If you have any colleagues who might be able to ID it, we’d appreciate it if you’d give them the URL for this post and ask them to take a look if they have time.

The following pictures aren’t great.  I didn’t have a tripod or photo stand, or decent lighting.  If you think you know what it might be, but need better pictures (not hard to imagine) or a particular angle, let me know and I’ll see if I can have him bring it to the lab for a better-lit portrait.

Mystery tooth from near Barrow, AK.
Root of mystery tooth.
Close-up of mystery tooth. Any comments on traces at photo center?

Mysterious sea Creatures

One of the things we collected a lot of from the strand lines was a variety of sea creatures.  There are a lot of pieces of what we thought (in the field) was gut, which is a useful raw material.  Now that we’ve gotten them into the lab, we think most of it is some sort of marine worms.  There are also a variety of other small marine creatures (plants or invertebrates–they have lost their orignal colors) and mollusks.

Marine worm? from 300-400 AD
Another sort of sea creature
Some sort of seaweed?
Maybe some type of sponge-like creature?

Obviously, I know a lot more about mammal bones & teeth than these things.  So we’ve sorted out a bunch, and Claire will take a couple of each type to Fairbanks, along with the shells. With any luck, we can get some IDs.  If we’re really lucky, the species in question will turn out to have fairly narrow habitat requirements, and we’ll know something about what the ocean was like near Barrow when the big storm happened between 300 & 400 AD.

If you happen to recognize any of these, please let me know what you think they are.  If you know anyone who might be interested in these creatures, send them my way.  The “worms” are very well-preserved, and still flexible.  It occurs to me that it might be possible to extract DNA from them (and maybe some of the other creatures as well), which would be a pretty rare opportunity.

Back Home Again–Finally

The conference wound up on Saturday with a really interesting circumpolar archaeozoology session, organized by Max Friesen of the University of Toronto.  I’ll do another post about the papers; this one is about coming home.  A bunch of us went out to dinner at a restaurant on a little square up Rue Lacépéde from Rue Monge.

The next day I started home.  My flight was late in the day, so I had a while to hang around Charles De Gaulle (the airport), which resulted in spending money at the duty-free shops on chocolates (for Glenn) and perfume (for me).  The Air France flight had really good food, and was even a bit early into JFK.  Passport control and US customs were the usual slow lines winding around like snakes, but eventually I made my way (by train) to the place where the hotel shuttles stop and got to the room.  A few glitches with the card keys (apparently their machine is on its last legs and only one of 3 worked) and I was able to sleep.

I had to get up quite early Monday, which wasn’t such a chore since I was still on Paris time, since my flight was at 7AM.  While checking in, I discovered that what had appeared as a JFK-ANC flight actually stopped in Salt Lake City.  And that’s where the trouble started.

We arrived in a perfectly good plane, a bit early, and were told that we were going to change planes.  They re-boarded us an hour or so later on the new plane, closed the doors, and discovered that an engine light was on.  They replaced a part, took the jet-way away, tested the engine, put the jet-way back, did something else, took the jet-way away, tested the engine, put the jet-way back, went looking for some other parts, found them, started replacing them, decided that they should deplane us because one of the parts was hard to get at and it would take a while  (they didn’t know that until they started doing the work?  what kind of mechanics are these?),  but we could leave larger luggage on board to speed re-boarding.  They handed us $6 meal vouchers and told us not to leave the boarding area (where there was only one place to get food for 100+ people).  Several hours later, it was clear that I would not be making my connection in ANC to go to Barrow.

When I went up to get re-booked, they were not able to find me a seat from ANC to Barrow until Wednesday.  I had them book it anyway, so I didn’t wind up having to wait even longer.  Eventually, they had us go on the plane five at a time to get the stuff we’d left there, and then sent us to another gate with another plane.  We finally made it to ANC about 4.5 hours late.  A few of us were stuck overnight, but at least the large contingent of senior citizens from the Midwest heading for a cruise ship didn’t miss their sailing.

It took them quite a while working on my ticket, and in the end they took my email and emailed me the itinerary later.  I did wind up standing around so long that when it was time for hotel vouchers, I’d checked the room availability, and was able to get them to put me in the Millennium, which has a decent restaurant and a gift shop that sells T-shirts (which I needed since I didn’t want to do laundry), instead of the Puffin Inn.  I think the problem was that they managed to book me on a Tuesday flight to Fairbanks, with a layover until the Barrow flight arrived, but hadn’t canceled the Wednesday reservation, so the prices weren’t coming out right, and the poor fellow didn’t have a calculator and was having to do all the math by hand.  They handed me more meal vouchers (which didn’t go that far in ANC in the summer) and off I went to catch the shuttle.

The flights on Tuesday went smoothly, Glenn was there to meet the plane, and my bag was one of the first out, so it was only about a 45 minute wait.  We then went over to the library where there was a BASC-sponsored talk going on, to hear the rest of the program, and pick up our daughter and an archaeologist friend, Rick Reanier, who is in Barrow getting ready to do some survey for Shell Oil down the coast.

Naturally, the first couple of days back have been a zoo.  One client has a procedure where they need to get letters estimating how much you are likely to charge them until the end of the fiscal year (September 30) so they can move money around.  The person who does that is going on vacation, so they needed this done ASAP.  So I made those letters, only to have them discover they didn’t have enough money in the projects to do that, and they didn’t have time before the woman left to move the money.  So I had to rewrite the letters to fit their budget!  I really don’t know why they don’t just do it themselves…  That took most of the last 2 days.

In between rewrites, I had a group of Secretary Salazar’s staffers (he’s in Barrow holding a public hearing) tour my lab while touring the building.  Fortunately, they were busy so the tour was brief.  Then I had a regular teleconference with clients, which I got called out of to go and photograph a very large tooth for a local man, Matu.   We think it may be a saber-tooth cat.  Photos have been forwarded to various paleontologists & mammologists, and we await the verdict.

Off to a conference of archaeozoologists

… or zooarchaeologists or faunal analysts (people who study animal remains from archaeological sites), in Paris. The trip over was a two-day affair, involving not one, but two red-eyes. We had a good tail wind, so the Salt Lake City flight was about an hour and a half shorter than expected, which made up for a late departure due to bad weather.

The conference is feeding us lunch every day, and it’s pretty impressive for a university cafeteria. One starter, one main course, one cheese, one desert and one drink. The folks I ate with didn’t see it, but there are rumors that wine was available. The coffee breaks have great pastries and fresh fruit.

The opening reception was amazing, and they didn’t run out of food, frequent problem at such events. They held it in the Grande Galerie de l’Evolution (Great Hall of Evolution) of the National Museum of Natural History, which is just amazing. A few pictures from there follow. I took them with my phone, so the quality is not the best.

Skull of Nile crocodile
Blue whale skeleton
Southern right whale skeleton
Arctic or Pacific loon, probably Pacific. They look alike, and the ranges overlap.
A small portion of the assembled multitude.

There are also some neat older mounts.  The one of the tiger on the elephant is because a French duke was hunting on elephant back in India, and a tiger leaped onto his elephant.  He was only saved because she was so heavy she broke the basket he was riding in.  She was shot, and that’s the tiger in the mount, which he had made and donated.  It didn’t say if it’s the same elephant.

A hippopotamus, closer-up than you'd want to get in real life.
Tiger and elephant, with howdah (the basket).