The shape of artifacts and structures can be very important in determining not only what they are (obviously) but also when they were likely to have been made.
Jennie Brower and I found this harpoon head (along with a number of other artifacts) while excavating the burial that first indicated that the site was not just a recent settlement. The shape of this harpoon head, with the pinched “waist” is one that was found at the earliest sites from the Inuit expansion into the eastern Arctic. When I saw it, I realized we were not excavating a late precontact burial.
The term “ritual object” has become an archaeological cliche for items of unknown use. That’s not to say that people in the past did not have rituals, some of which involved objects. In some cases, objects had no clear practical purpose where they were found, yet had deliberately been placed there.
I would say that the rocks we found in burials at Nuvuk fit into this group. They were much larger than the average rock on that gravel spit, so they had to have been gathered deliberately. They were clearly placed in the grave. Why? We can only speculate. They could have been placed by mourners, somewhat like people may drop flowers in a grave today. Or they could have been given in trade for intact items buried with the person.
… can be a bit overpowering. I chose one of the bags of frozen samples from Utiqiaġvik to thaw out for the lab tour after the Saturday Schoolyard talk.
The talk went well, with a very large turn out. Afterwards, a fair number of them came by the lab for a tour. And then I opened the bag. It was from Mound 8, and was described as containing fish bones and perhaps artifacts embedded in seal oil.
It was rather smelly to say the least. The oil made up most of the matrix, with a consistency like cold greasy peanut butter. Not only that, the most obvious contents were wood chips and hair, which weren’t too exciting. Most folks didn’t feel like hanging around too long. Since it was my birthday & there was a party at my house, I didn’t finish the bag.
Today I got back to work on it for an hour or so. It still smelled, I guess, but I think the smell of old seal oil is sort of nice. It’s the smell of archaeological sites, and they are places I like to be. The couple of extra days had let the oil warm up and it was a little easier to work with.
I found a number of interesting things, including a fish vertebra, some fish scales, a number of hairs, some bone fragments, and of course, wood chips. When I was labeling the bags, I realized it had been excavated by none other than Kevin Smith, now at the Haffenreffer, exactly 32 years and 3 months ago.
This Saturday, I’m giving a Saturday Schoolyard talk about the Walakpa salvage project. That means I need a lot of pictures. So I spent the last couple of days in the lab taking pictures of the artifacts from we recovered.
The water was a bit higher than yesterday on the way down, and we had to winch a couple of the 4-wheelers out of deeper mud, but we got to the site with not too much trouble. We put a stick in a the high water mark so we could see what the ocean was doing and went to work on the structure.
Yesterday, the strong winds made water screening where we have to do it a pretty sure ticket to hypothermia, so we tried just dry screening on the beach in the shelter of the bluffs, and it worked well.
We made pretty good progress on the excavation. More logs were exposed in both of the parallel log features (fallen walls?). The area between the logs is getting soft, and seems to contain a lot of animal bones, many of which are lying in a way suggesting they were tossed into a depression. South of the southern logs, we uncovered what appears to be part of a plank floor, maybe for a tent, since it doesn’t seem deep enough for a house. Next to, but apparently not on it, there was a cluster of ceramic sherds, including a large rim sherd. This was right under an old looters pit, and their activity may have broken the pot.
Beside the logs, but again not on the plank floor, we found two arrow shafts, apparently associated with a strip of baleen, and a fragment of bird hide. A couple of pieces of hide, one sewn, had been found just above this. This could be the remains of a quiver, or possibly a work bag, since there was a ground slate knife blade fragment and a worked piece of chert nearby. We’ll continue there tomorrow.
We didn’t stay out as long as we might have, since the waves seemed to be coming higher up the beach. It turned out to be a good thing. Going back to town was a bit of an adventure for us, although only one of us got stuck, but even more so for a man & his son we met on the way. They were trying to head out towing a trailer, and had gotten really stuck in a deep soft spot. It looked like they had been there a while trying to get out. We were able to get one of the 4-wheelers with a winch to where we could pull them out, and then waited until they got turned around and back on the town side.
Wednesday was a fun and productive day. There is a group of middle-school students from a Fairbanks charter school who are in Barrow for about a week on a class trip. (I think the best we got in middle school was a one (loooong) day bus trip to New York City). They are going to all sorts of places in the community, including my lab & the ARM site. They came over to the BARC, and I gave them an archaeological tour of Barrow via PowerPoint, since some of the sites are hard to get to in the winter and don’t look like much right now if you do get there. I also spent a bit of time on the various ways sites are endangered in Alaska (erosion, permafrost melting, etc.) and why that matters. They asked a lot of good questions. Some of them (maybe all) have been helping in the archaeological collections at the UAF Museum of the North, so they had a bit of background.
After that, we split them into two groups. Half of them went out to the ARM site, where Mark Ivey of Sandia National Labs & Jimmy & Josh Ivanoff gave them a tour, while the other half came to the lab, and then the groups switched. Since we’re working on weekends, there are samples in various stages of processing, so I was able to show them the process we are using on the Ipiutak floor samples from this fall. Then we looked at the Ipiutak sled runners, which I’d shown in situ (in place in the ground) in the PowerPoint. After that, we looked at the items from the Nuvuk-01 hunter’s tool kit. As usual, the little owl fastener was the star :-).
In the afternoon, I got two contract reports in for last year, and moved on to calibrating radiocarbon dates for the big project I’ve been doing. I’m using CALIB, since it reportedly may be a bit more accurate, but it’s output format means that you can’t just cut and paste columns. The only way to keep track was to do about 30 at a time. I got several hundred done, and finally gave up when it simply kept ignoring two dates. I couldn’t see any problem with the input formating, but it just didn’t make any output. Oh well, there is tomorrow.
Actually, there wasn’t, since I was home with a fever and sore throat. We have a half-day holiday for Barrow employees for Piuraagiaqta (Spring Festival), which starts today and runs all weekend. I’m actually taking the time off, since the Internet at the office is sketchy at the moment. There is a switchover from one connection to the earth station to another in progress, and it is not going as well as hoped.
I was traveling the last couple weeks to the Alaska Anthropological Association conference in Seattle, and then stopping in Anchorage on the way home to help my daughter get settled there. The conference and the session went well. I’ll try to put something up on the highlights, when I get a little more free time. I’ve still got papers and also homework for an on-line class I’m taking.
Yesterday, we got back to going through the Ipiutak floor material from the summer and the fall salvage excavation. Trace Hudson, Jacob Harris & Frieda Kaleak all came in, along with Laura Thomas, and we got going on the screening, floating and picking over the heavy and light fractions.
It’s a slow process, but a couple of things were found yesterday that may be interesting. A couple of very small fragments of rock crystal (probably clear quartz) showed up. This is interesting because of some of the properties of quartz crystals and the finds of larger quartz crystals at some Ipiutak sites.
We got so into that process that we didn’t actually get much straightening up done. I’ll have to do that later this week, since some visitors are being brought to the lab on a tour late in the week, and it’s a bit messy there now :-(.
We had a really great finish to the official field season. We excavated a last burial which turned out to be that of a very muscular person, who seems to have been buried in or on bird skin (maybe a bird parka). A possible burial (a human bone showed up in a test pit) turned out to be an isolated find, so we don’t have an unexcavated burial undone. There was a complete egg in the dark organic soil by the bone, which looks like something a fox might do to hide a stolen egg, so maybe the fox brought the bone there from somewhere else. The DWF continued to have a number of interesting artifacts (nice lithics, ground slate, composite labret). I’ll try to get pictures up in the next few days.
We were able to backfill all the big holes, record all surface finds, cover the DWF in hopes of being able to come back later this year, and still get the students home at a reasonable hour.
Some of us are going out again in the morning with an NSF-funded Mexican/North Slope student exchange group of about 25 or so. We’ve worked with them before, but not after the season ends, so it’s a bit challenging to find something to teach them that doesn’t risk disturbing something we haven’t got the time or crew to deal with.
I only got 4 hours of sleep last night, so off to bed.