What a day!

The weather was not pleasant.  It rained all day, and was pretty cold.  My fingers are swollen up like sausages.  The rain also took out the track pad on the computer for the transit, so we couldn’t back up the files in the field.  We were able to use a mouse in the lab, and got the files backed up and transferred to the other laptop, so if the track pad doesn’t perk up, we’re OK.  My Nikon Coolpix S9100, which I just got last night to replace one that failed after a week, died the same way today.  Nikon won’t issue a refund for 15 days, which is truly ridiculous under the circumstances.  I’ve been committed to Nikon, loved all the SLRs I’ve had (FM, 4 FEs, 4 N70s, D200) and liked everything about this camera, too, except it won’t work.  Epic fail.  So don’t buy one!

On the plus side, the very deep burial turned out to be a person wearing a fur parka and wrapped in hide!  You can even see traces of the stitching.  We aren’t sure how well-preserved the person is (we found a few finger bones and a nail inside the cuff).  We decided to take it out en bloc (complete) and take it back to the lab to excavate in controlled conditions so we can document the garment better, since it is very fragile.  We had some plywood brought out and managed to slide it through the gravel under the entire burial and lift the whole thing.  This required the digging of a very large hole, which we’ll now need to backfill.  Many thanks to Brower Frantz and his crew for bringing out the plywood and transporting the individual back to the lab while we kept on in the field.

Right arm and side of the fur parka, lying on a hide.
Close-up of stitching on parka

The DWF keeps yielding more artifacts, some of which are quite nice.  We’re trying to get to a reasonable stopping point and figure out a way to protect the exposed feature in case we can get funds to work on it in September.

Artifacts from DWF.

Things get a bit exciting…

As is traditional at the end of a field season, things started getting a bit exciting.  The possible burial we found in STPs yesterday proved to be the real thing this morning, and the feature we worked on on Monday also turned out to be a burial. It is the deepest burial I’ve seen at Nuvuk in the fifteen years I’ve worked there.  It appears to contain two children, covered in fur.  We hope to finish it tomorrow.

I had hoped to be done with the DWF today, but fish bones kept coming, along with an arrowpoint, a worked walrus humerus, some worked bird bone, what look like a broken needle, and more lithics.  Recording all that with the transit took time.  We still had the windbreak up, but there wasn’t much wind, and since it was the second warm day in a row, the mosquitos were swarming.  Thank goodness I always have bug dope in my pack, or I don’t think much would have gotten done.

In other good new, the replacement for the Nikon Coolpix S9100 which I had for a week before it stopped working arrived, so I will have a pocket camera for snapshots.  More pictures for here without lugging the D200 home to download the card every night.


Two neat finds

We started investigating the last GPR hit and came down on a jumble of wood.  The excavators were not optimistic, but I kept pushing to go a little further.  Eventually, this appeared:

Feature detected with GPR

The feature (I’m not calling it a burial until there is evidence of human remains) was jumbled because at some time after it was constructed, someone dug a hole in the middle of it.  And right beside where the hole had punched into the feature was this:

Antler arrowpoint

The hole just missed it.

The DWF (Ipiutak) levels had their own surprises.  We found a good bit of fish bone, some lithics (nothing diagnostic) and a lot of broken bone, but the really cool thing, which I found on the edge of the hearth, was a flattened but apparently complete egg!

The remains of the egg

Looks like it’s a hearth

We were a small crew today since the high school students weren’t working, so we concentrated on the Ipiutak area. It was fairly tricky to excavate, since there is unconsolidated gravel under the Wood/sand/gravel layer that covers the Ipiutak surface, and a large pile of unconsolidated gravel uphill from the features.  Plus the hearth ash is covered with a mushy skin of peat, and both the hearth surface and the peat undulate.  Despite that, we recovered 2 fin rays, some burnt bone, a pot-lidded flake (probably rhyolite), a grey chert flake, and a black biface fragment from the hearth.  We also got some large ungulate (species in dispute at the moment–probably caribou) bone, and a small fragment of decorated ivory, plus several interesting pieces of wood, which appear to be worked.

It was quite cold.  Even though we had a windbreak, the levels are just thawing, and the ground is cold and wet.  My hands are still stiff, so more will have to wait until tomorrow.

Still working on it…maybe

We finished excavation of the primary individual in the burial, and even managed to remove the box for further analysis and sampling in the lab.  The second individual whose grave had apparently been disturbed seems to be a secondary burial, since there was a nail under the cranium, although there was a bird blunt among the remains, so…  And another very large skeletal element turned up, so there may still be more of the very large man.

More on all this later.

Lab and logistics–Pt. 1

The past couple of weeks have been really hectic.  The local students have been working in the lab, and I’ve been dealing with logistics non-stop.

We’re at the point where we could go through the bags from the shovel test pits.  In the early days of archaeology, only artifacts were collected, and sometimes only the unbroken ones, at that.  The details of their provenience were often recorded in very broad term.  As the discipline progressed, new methods kept developing, and it became clear that many of the things that had been discarded could have yielded information, had they only been collected.  The pendulum swung toward keeping everything, including large volumes of samples, on the principle that someday methods would catch up, and then the information could be recovered.  This is the same reason that practice moved toward only excavating part of a site, or even of a feature.

Now, however, it is becoming clear that museums cannot expand indefinitely, and that not everything can be kept.  In fact, some places are deaccessioning items.  Many places are being much more selective in what they will accept.  There is a real storage space crunch in Barrow (particularly for climate controlled storage) so we need to be judicious about what is retained for the future.

At the same time, we are excavating with crews which include beginning excavators, in sometimes unpleasant weather.  The only good way to make sure that important data (or artifacts) don’t get left in the field is to have people collect things even if they are not sure they are artifacts.   And they do.

When the bags are gone through and the contents cleaned, obvious mistakes are discarded at that point.  That still leaves an enormous volume of material.  There simply isn’t place for it all, so some decisions have to be made in how to deal with it.  The most rational approach is to discard the items with the least information potential first.

The Point Barrow spit has been used by people and animals for the entire period of its existence.  Faunal remains have been dropped and scattered by humans and animals alike.  Artifacts have been dropped and lost and refuse has been tossed.  That’s true of most sites, but the  post-depositional processes acting at Nuvuk are a bit different.

At the majority of sites, the site is built up like making a layer cake.  The bottom layer goes on the plate first, then a layer of frosting, then another layer of cake, and so forth.  The oldest layer is on the bottom, and the newest on top.  If you put a piece of candy on the cake and push it down into the bottom layer, there are traces of that, so that it is possible to figure out that it was the last thing added.

At Nuvuk, on the other hand, the loose gravel matrix means that something can be dropped on the surface, stepped on twice and be 10 cm under the surface, covered with apparently undisturbed gravel, in 15 minutes.  Digging can bring older items to the surface, as can frost heaving and the action of tires.  In other words, there is no way to tell what was deposited before what.  One can get relative dates for artifacts based on their style or even patent dates for trade items, but that doesn’t tell you anything about when they were deposited at the site.  Faunal remains are even worse.  There is no way to date them (C14 dates at $900/bone aren’t likely to happen) and since polar bears hunt the same animals as the Nuvukmuit (people of Nuvuk) did, and drop bones on site, we can’t even be sure the bones were introduced by humans.  The only exceptions are areas where there was a sufficient amount of organic matter to support plant growth and soil development.  These include the graves and middens (and the sod houses before they eroded away).

This difference was taken into account when we developed the protocols for shovel test pits.  The excavators collected the artifacts and faunal material by natural levels.  In most cases, the entire STP was in the same loose gravel level.  This means that the materials from those STPs have much less information potential that the materials from the areas of the site with some soil development and stratigraphy.  Any research questions that could be addressed with this material can also be addressed with material with better stratigraphic control, at far less cost and with more confidence in the results.  That makes them an ideal place to start when trying to reduce the volume of the collections to be retained for the long-term.

We have been digging over 2000 STPs each season (and really hope the GPR will reduce that a lot).  Some of them had nothing in them, but most had at least a few animal bones and artifacts.  So we are working with the bags from STPs where there had been only an undifferentiated gravel level.  Any particularly interesting or unique artifacts are being saved (although they are few and far between, most having been found during excavation).  Recent trash (cigarette butts, juice boxes, etc), recent nails & metals straps, cloth gloves and the like are recorded and lab discarded.  Items with maker’s marks or other markings that might allow identification and/or dating are being retained for further analysis, and others are being sorted, counted and recorded prior to lab discard.  So far there seems to be a good collection of Pabst Blue Ribbon cans from the pull-tab era.  We are also retaining items (gears, lock sets, etc) which look as if they might be further identified with the right documentation for additional analysis.  The faunal material is being sorted.  Modified items are being retained for further analysis, identifiable elements are being recorded and lab discarded (with particularly good examples being saved for a teaching collection), and unidentifiable fragments are being counted and lab discarded.  This is good practice for the students, and since the STP material isn’t well-suited for future research (due to the issues mentioned above), overall this is a positive step.

Working on Wood (as opposed to woodworking)

Claire Alix, who is probably the world expert on precontact wood use in Alaska, is in Barrow for a 10-day stint of analyzing wood from Nuvuk.  She is working on wood from the Driftwood Feature (DWF), because there is so much of it and we need to figure out what needs to be kept.

The DWF was a storm strand line which was washed up onto and mixed with an Ipiutak settlement.  Not just any Ipiutak settlement, but the farthest north Ipiutak settlement by about 500 km.  The result was a mass of wood, bark and marine invertebrates, with a number of clearly identifiable artifacts included.  There was so much wood that we called the level “Wood/Sand/Gravel” because it seemed like there was more wood than matrix.  However, some of the smaller pieces of wood and bark were also worked, but it seems that the storm picked up smaller floatable artifacts and mixed them with driftwood.  Given the field situation, it was impossible to examine each small piece of wood in detail, so we erred on the side of caution and brought back a lot of things that probably aren’t artifacts, so they could be examined in a nice warm lab.

Chert artifact stands out in the middle of huge numbers of small pieces of wood, some worked and some not.
Wood level in the DWF.

The DWF was actually frozen, and had been for centuries, so we didn’t just want to bring the wood into a warm lab and let it thaw.  That generally leads to wood that looked really well-preserved “exploding.”  We have a nice walk-in refrigerator at the Barrow Arctic Research Center (BARC) just down the hall from my lab, so we have been holding the wood there, thawing slowly and keeping it cool to retard mold growth.  The large and important artifacts started the conservation process very quickly, but there are boxes of smaller things which need to be inspected to separate the worked wood and bark from the rest.  The wood that is just driftwood will be lab discarded, with that being recorded in the catalog so it will be clear in the future that artifacts haven’t been lost.  The artifacts will get analyzed and better information will be recorded.  This also lets us identify things for the conservator to work on when she next can come to Barrow.  Small artifacts are being brought out for gradual drying.  Wrapping wood in teflon tape to hold it together during slow drying has worked fairly well, so we’re doing that to move more out of the walk-in

All this is pretty laborious.  Claire has to do the analysis and wood IDs, but with her schedule we needed to find a way to speed things up.  The initial sorting of bags of wood and the wrapping of the wood are two of the most time-consuming aspects of the process.  So, last week Heather Hopson came in to do some data entry and initial sorting, and this week Trina Brower is joining Heather.  They are doing the initial  sorts, wrapping with Teflon tape & data entry, so Claire can keep looking at wood.

Heather & Trina hard at work in the lab.

Wrapping the delicate pieces of small wood is definitely fiddly work.  It certainly helps having someone to work with & talk to while working.

Wrapping an artifact to keep it together while it dries.

And when all else fails….

A most essential piece of lab equipment

18th Arctic Conference Part 3-Visit to the University Museum

In the afternoon we took a bus in to the University Museum at Penn for a look at the collections.  William Wierzbowski, Associate Keeper of the American Section, has set things up for the visit.  He had gotten a number of items that had been collected by the late Frederica de Laguna, (BMC ’27: founder of the Bryn Mawr College Anthropology Department) in Alaska out and had arranged them as a temporary “ancestor shrine” for us.

Frederica de Laguna "ancestor shrine" with a number of conference attendees. Rick Davis of Bryn Mawr, who was the host, is in the blue sweater at photo center.

It included maps drawn by Freddy, and fragments of Raven’s Tail weaving, a style which had fallen out of use and was recovered from archaeological fragments like these and a few remaining ethnographic samples.

Hand-drawn map of site location.
Fragment of Raven's Tail weaving.

Bill also brought out THE original Clovis Points.  It was really fun to see them “in person” as it were.

Attendees photograph the Clovis points.
Clovis Point with original catalog card.
Close-up of Clovis point.
Close-up of Clovis point.

Taking the temperature of permafrost and archaeology

Today the Saturday Schoolyard talk was about warming permafrost.  The speaker was Dr. Vladimir Romanovsky, head of the Permafrost Laboratory at the Geophysical Institute at UAF.  He gave a really good talk, explaining what permafrost is (permanently frozen ground, basically), why it matters if it melts, and how permafrost researchers go about taking its temperature (with thermistor (temperature sensor) strings down boreholes, mostly).  He then went on to show how permafrost temperatures had changed through time as the atmospheric temperature had changed.

After that, he moved to predictive modeling based on climatic models.  Using even a fairly middle-of-the-road climate model, it doesn’t look too good for permafrost in Alaska by the end of the century.  He also showed active layer (the soil layer at the top that freezes and thaws every year) modeling done on a similar basis some years ago, and pointed out that over the 10 years since the model was run it had been spot on in its predictions.  The active layer is clearly going to be a lot deeper if the predictions hold.

This is not good news for Arctic archaeology.  Compared to most of the rest of the world, where archaeologists are left to puzzle out what people were doing from a few stone tools, waste flakes and potsherds, we get really good organic preservation here, which makes it possible to look at questions that can’t be addressed elsewhere for lack of relevant data.  The reason the preservation is so good is in large part permafrost, and permanently frozen sites.  Last week, when Claire was here, we were getting a lot of well-preserved 1600-1700 year old marine invertebrates from the samples.  They exist because the layer was frozen for most, if not all, of that time.

I’m been thinking a lot about site destruction, and how to determine which areas are at highest risk, in order to prioritize field efforts.  Perhaps because coastal erosion is the big and immediate threat at Nuvuk (and all the other coastal sites I’ve worked at except for Ipuitak, where the immediate threat was the seawall being built to prevent coastal erosion), I’ve tended to focus on that, as well as eroding river banks for sites along rivers.  The melting of exposed ice wedges, which then leads to collapse of the overlying ground is also something I’ve been concerned about.  And these are major threats, which can tumble entire houses upside down on the beach for the waves to destroy.

Undercutting by waves caused the gravel to slump from underneath this grave at Nuvuk.
Storm-driven surf tears into the mound at Ukkuqsi in Barrow.
Tunnel remnants after the storm. The house was to the left, where only thin air can be seen.
Ice wedge in bluffs near Barrow. They can be much larger.
Slump block on beach at Barrow after a storm.
Slumps from thawing ground along a Colville River cut bank.
A Colville River cut bank from the air. Notice the earlier slump that has stabilized and even grown over, and the fresh cut at the bottom from the river's current.

I hadn’t thought much at all about the risks to Arctic archaeology from a significant deepening of the active layer, which will mean that artifacts and ecofacts (animal bones, insects, etc.) will freeze and thaw every year (which is hard on things to begin with, often causing rocks and bones to split) and while they are thawed, they will be decaying.  Even now, really old sites don’t have much organic preservation.  Even sites that are in no danger of eroding are threatened with the gradual invisible loss of a great deal of the information they now contain.

Obviously, if we are going to develop a “threat matrix” for Arctic archaeological sites, this has to be part of it.  I talked to Vlad a bit after the talk, and he thought he had students who could be put to work on this problem, perhaps by combining what we know about site locations in Alaska (by no means a complete listing) and the existing models for permafrost change.  He also said that one could do active layer modeling for a specific site with a year’s worth of soil and air temperatures, so that’s something we definitely need to get started on.