First field day!

We headed to the field this morning.  There were a few glitches, as always in Arctic fieldwork, and a few minor issues that could have been avoided with a bit of planning ahead.  The Rule of 6 Ps applies here, as in so much of life.

The first order of business was to get the gear stashed in a suitable fashion.  UMIAQ had come out and put ties on the tents so there was a way to keep the flaps open, and even built some benches out of driftwood, complete with a stump they had set up for a stool in front sort of like a lecture hall.  They told me this evening the stump was meant for me to sit on when addressing the crew (!) but so far it only got used for balancing on one foot on.

Once that was taken care of, the crew got pin flags and set forth to do a surface survey of the area inland of where we left off last summer.  We have done this for seven years now, and we are finding less than we used to in these walkovers, but there is always something that works its way to the surface.  There were a couple of bird blunts, a marble and some other odds & ends that we managed to shoot in with the transit and collect, but the big find, since our goal is in part to keep the former residents of Nuvuk from eroding into the ocean and learn about them at the same time, was the discovery of a grave.  It was in the middle of the trail that people use on that side of Point Barrow, and had clearly been exposed by traffic, which had scattered some parts.  We recorded the scattered elements, and have set up barriers so no one can drive over the person by accident.  Dennis O’Rourke gets here tomorrow, so we will excavate the burial on Thursday, when he can take the aDNA samples.

It was sort of foggy and windy, and really looked like it should be miserable, but it was oddly warm and bright, just really foggy most of the day.  Everyone kept remarking on how weird, but nice, the weather was.  Hoping for more of the same…

Here’s hoping the plane makes it in tonight…

…because Shawn Miller, the physical anthropologist who will be documenting the human remains excavated at Nuvuk this summer, is supposed to be on it. The weather has been rather unfortunate of late, and a number of flights have tried to land, only to be turned back by visibility below minimums, thanks to the fact that the folks who sited the Will Rogers-Wiley Post Memorial Airport seem to have picked the foggiest spot they could find. A lot of folks have gone back and forth between Anchorage or Fairbanks and Barrow a couple of times by now (and you don’t get frequent flier miles for that).

We’ve got the lab all ready, and Laura is getting Shawn’s equipment (various digital measuring devices) out in case he wants to get an early start.  Once he’s done, we can arrange the reburial.


While the dental extern was busy in the lab, Laura was there to help her find things, answer questions, and so forth. I was busy with other things.

A couple of Navy archaeologists (yes, the US Navy has archaeologists) were in Barrow last week to look at a tract that the Navy may be transferring to UIC, the Barrow village corporation, to get an idea of what needs to be done to comply with cultural resource protection laws prior to transferring Federal land. Neither of them has any Arctic experience, and they stopped by my office to pick my brain a bit. The next day they were doing a few STPs on an old beach ridge on the tract, and asked if I’d like to join them. It was a warm sunny day, with not much wind, and therefore many mosquitos. I hiked our from my office building to meet them, we checked out the area a bit & I hiked back. Other than all the bugs, it was great.

Navy archaeologists David Grant and Bruce Larson surveying.

We didn’t find anything cultural that was older than NARL, but we did find a couple very old gravel beaches. We did find some stakes that had probably marked research plots, and a big aluminum object that looked like an aircraft part. It had some cable attached to the front, as if someone had been trying to tow it. Apparently they gave up.  If you happen to recognize this, please let me know and I’ll pass the information on.

Large aluminum mystery object on Navy tract.

The next day I got a call from the City of Barrow. They run the cemeteries, and had been getting reports that a coffin was partially open. They had checked, and indeed a coffin had been frost-heaved and was damaged. They asked if I could come over when they moved the person into a new coffin. We decided to do it the next afternoon, after they got the new coffin built.

Fortunately, the old coffin wasn’t damaged except for a bit of the lid, so we were able to get the dirt off to make it lighter without disturbing the remains. The City crew was able to lift the entire box out and place it in the new larger coffin. It was a tight fit, because the old coffin had been covered with canvas that was nailed on, but that wasn’t clear when they had measured for the new box! Luckily they had left a bit of space, so they were able to pry a bit and get it in. I got the canvas that had frozen in out so it could go along.  I’d mostly been there in case the coffin was fragile and we had to transfer the individual, to make sure that nothing got left, but that wasn’t needed.

Once the coffin was out of the grave, the idea was to dig it a bit deeper, and then rebury the person. The soil profile was pretty interesting. There was clay (which generally is deposited on the bottom of bodies of still water) very close to the surface, despite the fact that the grave was on a mound. Apparently the permafrost has pushed it up a good bit, although it may have been deposited when sea level was higher than today.

Permanently frozen clay exposed in grave in Barrow cemetery.

The crew did what they could with shovels, but thaw was not that deep, as you can see from the picture above, so they were going to get a compressor and jack hammer, to really get the grave deeper, when I left.  If not, frost heaving would just bring the box up again in a few years.

The deceased see a dentist

This week, the individuals we excavated this summer saw a dentist.  This is not as silly as it may sound.

The various individuals whose burials we excavate at Nuvuk are not kept in a museum somewhere for future study.  That is the way things were done in the past, but nowadays that is not acceptable to most descendant communities (people who consider themselves descended from the individuals whose remains are in question).  There are laws specifically to protect Native American graves, as well as laws which protect all graves regardless of the ethnic origin of the occupant.  This is a good thing, but it does mean that either research has to be completed very quickly, or new ways to save data for future research need to be found.

The current residents of Barrow, some of whom are the children of people who grew up at Nuvuk, generally think people should be left where they were buried, absent a pressing reason to move them.  In general, I agree.  My primary research interests don’t involve digging up burials, which makes it odd that I’ve been involved in excavating over 70 of them at Nuvuk over the years.  The thing is, the point is eroding, and if the graves aren’t excavated and moved, their occupants will wind up in the ocean.  So there is an urgent reason to be doing these excavations.

Since they are happening, most folks in Barrow agree that it makes sense to learn as much as we can about the individuals, prior to reburying them in the Barrow cemetery.   I’ve mentioned that a rib is saved for aDNA extraction, which takes place in Dennis O’Rourke’s lab at the University of Utah.  Everything else happens in Barrow.  For a number of years, the Dental Clinic at Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital has sent one or more dental externs (dental students who have come to Barrow to get practical experience in the clinic) to work with the Nuvuk Archaeology Project for a day or two at a time.  Sometimes they have come to the field with us, but their primary role has been in the lab, where they examined the teeth of the various individuals whose remains we have recovered.  In addition to recording the teeth on standard dental charts, including information on disease and anomalies, they have made casts of the teeth, just like the ones dentists make of live patients in their offices.  The idea came Amanda Gaynor-Ashley, DDS, until recently head of the dental clinic, who was visiting the lab a few years ago and noticed that some of the skulls had unusual dental patterns that looked just like those she was seeing on patients in the chairs at the clinic.  Dentition (shape and arrangement of the teeth) is highly heritable (it runs in families).  Since the individuals we were looking at were going to be reburied, Mandy suggested trying to cast their teeth.  It worked well, and each since the externs have done it for the individuals excavated that year.  Even after they are buried, we will have an accurate representation of their teeth for future researchers.

Casts of upper and lower jaws of 10A927
Cast of all that remained of 10A928's tooth rows

Since we started doing this, I stumbled across a mention of a collection of dental casts of living Barrow residents which was made by a researcher in the 1950s.  It apparently still exists, so the casts we are making as part of the NAP may well have an important place in a future research project.

Some of the casts from previous years.
More of the casts.

Later this week, Shawn Miller, the physical anthropologist from the University of Utah will arrive.  We will have to get the casts put away before that to give him maximum space to work.

Moving the datum

Since 2004, we have had a primary site datum NUVUK 1, with two others that were used as control points.  As the bluff continued to erode, it became clear that we would need to abandon the primary datum, so last year local surveyor Chris Stein set three more datums.  This year, the primary datum was no longer a good place to set up, so I switched to setting the total station up at NUVUK 2 (our former primary reference point, and using NUVUK 1 as the reference.

The program we use, called EDM, is a really nice special purpose piece of software, written just for recording archaeological excavations with a total station.  It is really configurable and can make major use of menus, which means no typos and a cleaner field catalog down the road.  It allows you to set up (once you get the instrument over the datum point and level) by putting a reflector on the reference point (another datum for which you have coordinates, telling the program where the instrument is.  It then does the geometry and lets you confirm where the program thinks the instrument is and which way it is facing.  With that information and the angle and distance to any other point, the program does the geometry to figure out where the artifact you are recording is in the site grid.

For all this to work, the datums have to be precisely recorded.  On July 20th, we actually had to move NUVUK 1.  When Chris set it, he’d chosen a high point, with vegetation, as a good stable vantage point.  The only problem was that we weren’t sure that it didn’t have a grave under, and the erosion was getting closer.  We had to pull it and see, rather than risk loosing a person to the ocean.  All the other datums were quite far away (a good thing for control points) so we needed something more convenient to where we were excavating for ease in checking the setup, or restarting after battery issues.  I picked a spot below one of the guy wires for the beacon pole, since the wire made it less likely that anyone would disturb it with a vehicle.  We made extra sure of our setup, checked it with NUVUK 4, and tried to yank NUVUK 1.

It didn’t want to come out.  We tried tapping gently with a mallet.  We really didn’t want to be too aggressive, because we weren’t sure if it was in a burial.  In the end, we had to excavate shovel test pits all around to loosen it enough to remove.  Fortunately, there was no burial.

We put the stake into the chosen new location, and shot it in.  For the rest of the season, we checked setups with NUVUK 4 as well as NUVUK 1(A), and it seems to be stable.

While all this was going on, part of the crew was finishing excavation of another burial 10D75.  This burial appeared to be quite disturbed at first, but actually was fairly well-preserved except for the top.  The rest of the crew was STPing.  Rochelle found one burial in an STP, and Trace found another by exposing some aged wood (we call it “burial wood” because the wood in burials just has a certain look to it) while walking.  We recorded and back-filled STPs around the two locations so that we could shift windbreaks there the next day.

Tiana and Kyle recording and backfilling STPs

The burial of a very large man

I mentioned that we started excavating a burial on the 15th of July and didn’t finish until the evening of the 19th, due to some really nasty weather.  It was simply too windy to excavate from Thursday afternoon until Monday the 19th after lunch.  Rain, sleet, and snow are all bothersome, but can be worked around.  Once the wind speeds get over about 30 mph, the chances of small artifacts (or even worse, small skeletal elements) being moved before their position is recorded or even blowing away altogether is real.  Wind speeds at Nuvuk are usually 5-10 mph higher than the official NWS measurements in Barrow.  Last year we had a Kestrel 4000 portable anemometer on site, but Laura’s dog Sir John Franklin ate it, so we have to estimate a bit.

We started work on the burial, called 10A927 on Wednesday, clearing vegetation and the organic soils covering the actual burial.  On the 15th, we began exposing the individual.  The skeleton was quite well-preserved.  It quickly became apparent from the size of the femur (thighbone) that this had been a very large person.  Dennis O’Rourke, the physical anthropologist who has the grant to work on the aDNA from Nuvuk, helps with the excavations each season.  He’s pretty tall (I’m guessing maybe 6’4″) and his opinion was that the burial was of someone who was very close to his height.  That would pretty much have been a giant at the time of European contact, since the tallest man the Ray expedition’s surgeon George Oldmixon measured in 1882-3 was 5’8 3/4″ tall.  There have been several other fairly tall individuals in the ancient graves at Nuvuk, so maybe the average height was depressed at contact because of poor nutrition because Yankee whaling had depleted the whale stocks pretty badly.  We were able to get an aDNA sample, which we take as soon as the ribs begin to show.  Jenny suits up and excavates and collects a previously unexposed rib.  Weather forced us to tarp the burial to protect it until conditions improved.

Wave breaking on the Beaufort beach at Nuvuk as the weather improves.

On Monday the 19th, the weather was pretty bad in the morning, but by lunch time it was improving, so we went out.  The passing of the storm had brought the winds around from SW to ENE, so the first order of business was to move the windbreaks on burials 10A927 and 10D75 (which we were excavating simultaneously).   We then began excavating.  10A927 turned out to be a very interesting burial.  The skeleton was nearly complete and well-preserved, and the positioning and grave structure were pretty typical for Nuvuk.  It was very nice to be able to show the students a real-life example.

I can’t show any pictures, as the Barrow Elders do not want them made public, based on past unfortunate experience.  I’ll do my best to describe the burial.  A shallow pit had been dug in the gravel (it’s pretty hard to dig anything else, even with metal shovels, which they didn’t have back then), and surrounded it with a “frame” of wood and/or whalebone.  10A927 had a nice whale rib at the foot, and wood at the sides and head.  The man had been placed on a hide, probably caribou, on his back with his knees bent.  His legs were bent a bit more than usual for Nuvuk, with his feet right by nis pelvis, almost as if the grave had been a bit small.  Perhaps the grave diggers had made the standard grave and he was a little too tall to fit easily.  His face was turned left.  His arms were folded over his chest and stomach.

A number of things had been put in the grave with him.  We found a number of whalebone bola weights (bolas were used for hunting birds), which may actually have been put in as a complete bola.  We also found a lot of the beach cobbles (bigger than the regular gravel and not that common at Nuvuk) that we have come to call “burial rocks” that were placed in some burials.  Most interestingly, he had the top of a human skull , which had apparently been placed on his stomach under his hand, since we found finger bones and a bola weight in it.  The skull appeared to have been on the surface at one point, as it was lighted in color than the skeleton, but it seems to have been placed in the burial deliberately, not found its way in later.  We have had a couple of burials with more than one person in them, and some where a later burial had disturbed an earlier one and ended up with parts of the earlier burial in and around the later one, but nothing like this.

All this was quite complicated to excavate and record.  Since the high school students are all minors, and some are only 15, the easiest way to avoid violating any child labor laws is to make sure they don’t work late.  So they went back to town with one of the bear guards just before 5pm, and the rest of us (Jenny, Laura, Ron & I) stayed out to finish.  It’s kind of unfortunate, since we only work late when something delicate and usually interesting is being excavated, and it seems tough on the students to make them leave just as things get really cool, but since this is a real job for them, we have to be on the safe side and follow all the rules.

We didn’t get done until about 9:15pm.  It wasn’t the greatest weather for all this (never got above 36ºF) but at least the wind dropped for the last couple of hours.

10A927 by the blue tarp, as we pack up at 9:20pm for the ride back to NARL after finishing the excavation.

“Today it’s like heaven!”

Yesterday the weather was very nice, our first real summer day, just in time for a site visit by a number of Barrow Elders with family ties to Nuvuk. A fine time was had by all.

Today the weather started out even better, if possible. It was sunny, with blue sky and blue ocean, and so little wind that we actually had mosquitos. We finished one of the two burials we were working on around lunch, just as it started to cloud up. The other burial was done around 3 pm, and we started shooting in and backfilling STPs. Both burials were quite interesting,and both had harpoon heads as grave goods, which we haven’t had since the first burial.

Laura and the students went in early, since there really wasn’t enough for everyone to do, and Laura had to catch a plane to California for her sister-in-law’s wedding this weekend. Dennis, Jenny, Ron, Richard the bear guard and I stayed out to finish. We had a slight delay due to transit battery issues, and a dry fine mist rolled in. We managed to shoot in everything, including some delicate surface artifacts from portions of the site we haven’t reached yet, which are being collected to avoid damage from traffic. Ron and Richard even backfilled a lot of the remaining STPs! The students are very lucky…

Tomorrow we’ll have part of the crew in the lab, and the rest will go out to finish backfilling and haul gear back to the road, where they will meet Jenny in the project truck, who will haul the gear back to the lab for cleaning and storage. It’s very satisfying (and quite a relief) to actually have accomplished what I wanted & have all the data collected a day AHEAD!!

A Late Cold Evening

It’s 10: 27  PM and I just got into the office from the field.  It was too windy to dig this morning (again!) so we didn’t head out until after lunch.  It was still pretty windy and cold (the high was 36 F and the wind didn’t drop below 20 mph until the last couple hours.

We managed to finish one burial today.  The students went home at the usual time, and Jenny, Laura, Ron & I (and the bear guards Michael and Richard) stayed out until we were done.  It was the grave of a very large man, who had a number of interesting things buried with him.  More about that, and pictures in a future post.

The data is downloaded, so I am going home for dinner & bed.

Neither wind nor snow: Excavating burials under less than ideal conditions, even for Nuvuk

Conditions at Nuvuk are never ideal for excavation of burials, or most other features, really.  The matrix (soil) is mostly loose gravel, so things don’t stay put too well and it is very easy to undercut or otherwise displace things before their position is accurately recorded.  We have learned to take lots of photos, and record things with the transit as they are exposed, and that works fairly well.  This past week was particularly challenging.

We started the week with 3 burials located through shovel testing.  Two of them were very close together, so they could not be excavated at the same time.  It would confuse the EDM data recording program, and the excavators would get in each other’s way.  So we picked two that were separated by a good distance, and got them ready to excavate on Monday.  It was really windy, and one of the burials had a bit of vegetation on top of it.  In the Arctic, vegetation dies back each winter, but the dead stuff doesn’t decay, it just stays there.  Once you start excavating and cut the vegetation loose, it can start blowing around.  Some of the crew wore goggles to excavate.

Dennis, Trina, Trace and Heather excavate the surface levels of a grave in a high wind.

Needless to say, the construction of good windbreaks at both units was a priority.  After that, life was a bit more pleasant for the excavators.  On Tuesday we went to work in earnest.  With excavation at both burials, I was busy on the transit.  Both of my experienced transit operators were excavating, and things had to move so fast that it was not a training day.

Excavation going on at two burials, as seen from the transit. I took the picture during the brief sunny period after the snow squalls were over.

One of the burials seemed to have an intact wood frame around most of it.  Oddly, when we finished the excavation, the lower body seemed to have been undisturbed, but the upper body was mostly missing.  The grave was fairly shallow, and in the past explorers, anthropologists and others are known to have collected surface human remains, especially skulls, for museums.  Most of those individuals have been repatriated and reburied, so it is possible that is what happened to the upper body.  It is also possible that someone dug a hole and scattered the remains unknowingly.  The osteologist will look at any human skeletal elements that have been found on the surface nearby to see if they are part of this individual and reunite the elements before the reburial.  We were able to finish that burial on Tuesday.  Unfortunately, this was not the burial that was close to the other burial, so the excavators had to switch to STPs.

The other burial took longer.  Once we got the vegetation off without anyone wrecking their eyes, we came down on several patches of charcoal, as well as most of the bones of a bird (probably a duck, although I need to look more closely in the lab to be sure).  We spent a good deal of time defining the charcoal, prior to taking C14 samples for possible dating.  In the end, it looked like maybe someone had made a fire and cooked a bird over the grave (probably not knowing it was there).  The charcoal pattern was a bit odd for just a fire, and I think that the grave could have had some wooden framing elements which had been ignited by the fire on top of them, and smoldered into charcoal in place.  So it’s not clear what dating the charcoal will date.

Two of the charcoal patches in the process of being defined.

As we continued excavating, it became clear that the individual’s bones were well-preserved, but were very jumbled.  It appears that they may have been dug up, possibly even at another location, and then reburied in a hole where we found them.  From the soil and the amount of vegetation over the grave, it is clear that this happened quite some time ago, possibly hundreds of years ago, perhaps well before the bonfire.  Because of the jumbling, it took a very long time to document and removed the remains, and we weren’t able to finish until Wednesday morning.

Once we got done with that burial, we immediately started getting ready to excavate the other burial nearby (within about 3 meters).  I programmed a unit into the data recording software, and the crew started to work.  First order of business was a windbreak, since it was still windy.  We also tested several vegetated area we had reached at the end of last season and chosen not to test because they were really high probability burials and we would not have had time to excavate them.  Two were negative, and the third turned out to be positive.  We assigned it a number, set up a windbreak, and went to work on that one as well.  It just kept getting windier.

On Thursday, I didn’t get to the site until after noon, due to the radio show, so the crew worked on STPs and getting one of the burials ready to start shooting in artifacts as soon as I got there.  This burial turned out to have a lot of artifacts, especially the “burial rocks”  which we find in many of the burials, so we didn’t finish.  With the small crew and bad weather on Friday, we will have to finish Monday.

We see this much sun in December (although it snows a bit more…)

It has pretty much been overcast all week.  The sun is not visible, although at times the clouds have thinned enough that it was fairly bright.  Coupled with constant strong wind, and mixing in fog, rain showers, and a half-day of snow squalls, the weather has been unfortunate, to say the least.  Despite all that, we managed to completely excavate two more burials, and start a third, as well as dig a whole bunch of STPs.

On Thursday, I stayed in town in the morning to take part in a call-in radio show on  KBRW, the local public (in the best way) radio station, about the graves at Nuvuk, ancient and modern, and the issues about vehicle traffic and erosion, as well as some broader discussion of similar issues in the other North Slope villages.  Delbert Rexford, UIC Land Chief, some of whose ancestors lived and are buried at Nuvuk, organized the show, which went in a time slot normally used by the North Slope Borough Health Department.  They had a cancellation, so we filled in.  We also had Wesley Aiken, a respected local elder, Patuk Glenn, from IHLC (the Inupiat History Language and Culture Commission), Vera Williams from NVB (the Native Village of Barrow–the local tribal government) realty department, and Heather Dingman from the Health Department.  It went well, and we got several callers, including one who called to say they appreciated the work the NAP has been doing with the students, which was nice to hear.  Thanks to Seismic Isaac Tuckfield for engineering, and letting us run over the time slot a bit.

Once we were done, I headed back home to put on the warm gear, and Dennis O’Rourke (who’d been catching up on manuscripts since no burial excavation that might require sampling was happening when I wasn’t there) and I headed out to Nuvuk.  On the way, we ran into Mike and Patsy Aamodt.  Mike has a set net near the site, and he and Patsy often stop and see how things are going.  One of their nieces, Jackie, worked on the project for several years.  Anyway, Mike has finally been getting fish (they’re late here like everywhere else in Alaska this year) and he asked if I would like one.  Of course, yes, so he said he’d drop it off in my qanitchat (Arctic entryway, or stoop for those of you from upstate NY).  When I got home, there were 3 lovely fresh chum salmon in a bag, so they needed to be taken care of right away.

Friday was still somewhat windy, with fairly serious rain for Barrow.  Since the wind had changed direction, we would have had to move the windbreak before we could even start work, and our crew was very small.  Flora left for firefighter training in Fairbanks (yeah, Flora!) and a couple of others were out for the day for various reasons, so we decided it was more sensible to do a lab day.  That was a good thing, since I was having a minor freezer space crisis at home, and so I invited the non-local project members (AKA the grown-ups) plus Laura (& her husband Bryan and baby Violet) over to eat one of the fish for dinner.  Jenny Raff contributed a fine salad, and beverages were provided by Laura & Bryan & Dennis.  A fine time was had by all.

Today I went to the BASC Saturday Schoolyard talk, which featured a NOAA LTjg talking about hydrography (actually a very interesting talk) and then added all the week’s transit data to the catalog, updated the lab computer, and spent some time plotting the data and checking IDs for the radiocarbon dates I got in this week.  After I finished that, I was going to head home and get the pictures ready to post on the week’s progress int he field.  I’ve fallen a bit behind since standing in the cold wind at the transit for much of the day does take it out of you a bit, and then one tends to get really sleepy when one gets back into a warm building.   However, I got a call from an archaeologist friend from Anchorage who brought her 17-year-old son to Barrow as a field trip for his Alaska Studies class (very cool), so I met them for dinner at Osaka, the local sushi restaurant (which is quite good).  Just got back, as they are heading for Nuvuk on the Aarigaa Tours van tour.  I’ll have to get the pictures ready for a descriptive post tomorrow.

Excavating the first burial of the season

We waited to start burial excavation until Dennis O’Rourke and Jenny Raff, the physical anthropology/ancient DNA folks were here.  The weather on July 8 was pretty sunny, although it was very windy in the morning.  The burial had been located by a vehicle churning up some human remains and scattering them along the trail for several meters, so we weren’t exactly sure where the burial was located, so we had to remove some of the gravel to find it.

Crew gathers to begin excavation of burial 10A918. Note the sea ice on the ocean.

After it was located, a smaller group began the fine excavation.  It quickly became clear that the burial was quite scattered, since portions of the skull showed up both north and south of pelvic fragments.  At least one of the pelvic fragments seems too small to belong with the others, so there may be two individuals involved.

Beginning excavation.

The rest of the crew moved back to STPs, which over the course of the day located two additional probable burials, as well as a fairly recent and quite large oosik (walrus penis bone).  Excavations were interrupted when the honey bucket tent somehow wound up with the door locked.  No one was inside, but no one could get in to use it either, so we needed to get that fixed.  Fortunately, the cover was just loose enough that Victoria, who is quite slender, was able to wriggle in between the cover and frame (after taking off her jacket) and unlock it from the inside.  Crisis averted.  Yay Victoria!

Our bear guard Larry Aiken made a good windbreak for the excavators.  Unfortunately it just got windier.  Eventually the gusts got so strong that an artifact blew away being passed hand to hand, so we stopped work on the burial, tarped it up well, and worked on STPs for the rest of the day.  We spent some time watching the sea ice, which was going by faster than I’ve ever seen.  One of the bear guards said Volunteer Search and Rescue had somehow measured the speed at 23 mph!

Larry Aiken's excellent windbreak, sheltering the crew.

The next day was also sunny and windy, but not nearly as bad, so we went back to working on the burial.  We found a number of vertical faunal (animal bone) fragments in the middle of the burial, around where the chest would have been.  The leg bones were more or less in place, so it looked like the disturbance was concentrated on the upper body.  We expanded to the south to make sure we recovered all the remains, and found the old ground surface under the gravel.  It had remains and some artifacts on it.

Working at 10A918. Dennis O'Rourke holding the stadia rod with reflector to record an artifact. Notice how much ice has gone away.
Dennis & Jenny shoveling (for Jenny & Justin)

We were able to find some material suitable for C14 (radiocarbon) dating underneath the bones that hadn’t been disturbed, so that was good.  We tarped the burial up for another night.

I’ve already mentioned how cold Saturday was, but we managed to finish the burial.  We found a couple really neat artifacts, which are pictured below.  Speaking of pictures, in case you are wondering, you won’t see any pictures of human remains here (or in any publications or presentations on the site).  We do photograph them for documentary purposes, but the community Elders have asked that they not be shown.  Like most people, they aren’t enthusiastic about having pictures of the mortal remains of people whom they consider as relatives all over the place.  The community has had some bad experiences in the past with this, and I think their position is completely reasonable.  It really doesn’t impeded research, and they don’t mind maps or drawings if needed to explain something.

Copper point, probably made from copper sheathing from a ship. It was probably for a sealing harpoon, judging by the size.
Older-style cartridge for a whaling shoulder gun. They haven't changed all that much today.

In the end, it looked like the burial had been disturbed twice, once in the late 1800s, when it looks like someone was digging a hole and dug up part of the burial, with remains being scattered on the same surface these artifacts were on, and then a week ago when they were exposed in the trail.

Updated 7/17/10 to fix a picture size problem some folks were reporting.

STPs and more STPs!

The second day in the field was devoted mostly to digging (shovel test pits).  It was sort of chilly, and digging is a good way to keep warm.  Besides, physical anthropologists Dennis O’Rourke and his post-doc Jenny Raff were due to arrive in Barrow that night (July 7).  Since we are collecting small (a rib, generally) samples of the human remains for ancient DNA (aDNA) and stable isotopes and direct dating, and it is best if the samples are collected by one of the physical anthropologists, I decided to wait for them to join us in the field before beginning excavation of the burial we had located the day before.

We set out several more lines of STPs.  STPs are common on archaeological surveys, where archaeologists are trying to find sites that may not be obvious when you just walk over them.  Digging STPs makes it possible to see if there are artifacts or soil layers created by human activity buried in the ground.  STPs are also used on known sites where one wants to find buried features (a term which can cover all sorts of concentrated physical evidence of past human activity–storage pits, hearths, houses, tent sites, turkey traps, reindeer corrals, places where someone sat to make a stone tool, you name it).  Usually, they are a relatively minor part of work on a known site, serving mostly to choose where to dig.  Often, they are placed on the site in a pattern which is either totally random (as in the locations are picked using a grid and random numbers) or what is called “stratified random” which means the site (or region–this works for survey too) has been divided into different areas (strata) based on something like slope or distance from water or vegetation cover, which each stratum being sampled separately.  This avoids the possibility of not testing one stratum at all, which can happen with plain random sampling.

We are not doing random sampling of any sort.  Nuvuk is, among other things, an area where people in the past buried their dead.  Many of their descendants still live in or visit Barrow regularly.  No one likes to think of their relatives, however distant, falling into the ocean due to the erosion of their final resting place.  Random sampling is designed to help get a representative sample of whatever is in the ground, not to find all of it.  We are trying to find everyone, and excavate them before erosion deposits them in the ocean. To do this we dig a lot of STPs.  We had hoped to have some geophysical prospecting gear (GPS, magnetometer and resistivity) here this summer, and test them against the shovel testing in the Nuvuk gravels.   If they worked, we’d have to shovel a lot less.  Unfortunately, family illness prevented that happening this summer.  So what we do is lay out a 50 m tape, place a pin flag every two meters (say on the odd numbers), drag it along and put out more flags and so forth, until we get a line across the entire ridge where the site it (it’s about 116 meter wide).  Then we move the tape inland 2 meters, and do it over, except the pin flags would go on the odd numbers.

This spacing is close enough to pretty much guarantee that if there is a grave present some sign will show up in one of the STPs next to it, even if they don’t come right down on it.  Actually, we prefer it if they don’t, but since most of the graves don’t show on the surface, it happens.

We have gotten far enough from the bluff that the trail to Plover Point actually crosses the area we are putting STPs in.  When we lay out new lines, the first order of business is to dig and document all the STPs in the trail, record their locations with the transit, and backfill them (assuming there is no sign a grave might be there).  We don’t want to obstruct the trail, since we’d like to keep traffic on it, rather than driving all over the site.

Digging STPs on the trail to Plover Point.
Laura and Warren get ready to document another STP.

All the STPs bore fruit.  We located three additional locations, two on the C line and one on the D line, that appear to be burials.  There is plenty for us to do this field season already.

A Cold Day at Nuvuk

It has been a busy week, with all sorts of things to do after the day’s fieldwork was over and the data was downloaded and backed up, including a public meeting (which will need to be rescheduled because the weather was nice and the TV didn’t get it on the announcement roll-around in time), baking dozens of cookies for the community potluck my employer was holding, and dealing with the aftermath of a minor ATV accident involving one of the students (she is fine, but wrenched an already sore shoulder and therefore will be on limited duty next week). We have tomorrow off, so I’ll provide more details and pictures on the fieldwork then.

Just a quick note while I try to get the flash card downloading. The pictures are all shot as hi-res JPEGs and RAW, so it takes forever. I doubt I can stay up long enough to post pictures tonight.

We worked today. Normally we do fieldwork Monday-Friday, because the students are paid by the hour (so they get practical job experience as well as archaeological training) and child labor laws make it complicated to work more than that, especially for the younger students. We had a vacation day on Monday, though, and since it’s a short season and some of the students are trying to earn money we decided to do a 5-day week anyway. In the end, only 5 of them made it to work today. One was out of town, Trina was taking part in a fundraiser for the basketball and volleyball teams, two were sick, one was hurt and we don’t know what happened to the other one. It was wicked cold this morning, so hats off to Rochelle, Trace, Nora, Warren and Victoria. Not only was it cold, it was windy & foggy (yes, at the same time). In fact, it was so foggy we were having trouble with the transit because the lens and/or the reflector kept getting obscured by water drops. And it rained before lunch, and toward the end of the day.

However, as compensation, we finished excavation of the first burial of the season.  It turned out to have been disturbed, probably in the late 1880s, judging by the artifacts scattered along an old ground surface along with some of the individual’s bones.  We found some very cool artifacts (a bit unusual for Nuvuk burial excavations) although they weren’t really in the burial.  Highlights were a copper end-blade (for a harpoon head or possibly arrow), a split blue glass bead, and best of all, the cartridge for a shoulder gun.  The last still seems to have a bit of black powder around the primer area, so we have it in VERY wet conditions, and I will try to clean it tomorrow before there is any chance of the powder drying at all.  Our bear guard, Larry Aiken, who is a whaler, said it was the oldest style, shorter than the ones they use now.

As further compensation, we decided to order our lunches from the fundraiser, so Trina brought 13 lunches to the end of the road to Nuvuk (called my cell before she headed out), and Larry took a trailer back to get them.  So we all had BBQ chicken, potato salad, rice, pancit and a hot dog for lunch, along with the hot beverage of our choice and chips courtesy of Nora!  Even with the big propane cooker going the tent was cold enough to see our breath.  We hung in and finished the burial, and tested the areas where two other single human bones had turned up in a trail.  Neither one had a grave beneath it.  We already have 3 other probable graves, based on subsurface indications in STPs, waiting for us next week.

Choosing the crew

A big part of the past couple weeks has involved choosing the crew for work at Nuvuk.  There are two funding sources for this project.  One is a grant to the North Slope Borough from the Department of Education, through the Education through Cultural and Historical Organizations program (ECHO), and the other is a regular research grant from the Arctic Social Sciences program of the Office of Polar Programs of the National Science Foundation.

The ECHO funds are targeted at K-12 education, so they need to be used for pre-college students and those who teach/supervise them.  We’ve been focusing on high school students for those slots.  For one thing, we run the dig for these students as a job.  That way, even if they don’t find their life’s work in archaeology, they’ll have some spending money for the next school year, and will have learned about interviews, resumes, time-sheets, paychecks and good work habits before they are out on their own.  Students who are less than 15 are very restricted in the hours they can work, even in the summer.  The first year, we hired a couple of students that young, only to find that every time we needed to stay late in the field (usually because something exciting was happening) we’d have to send them home or violate child labor laws.  Essentially, they got punished for being young, which was really no fun for anyone :-(.  After that, we only hired students who were older, and could work some OT, so they wouldn’t need to go home just when things got really exciting.

We’ve been doing interviews with students who haven’t worked before, both to assess motivation and to make sure they understand what they are getting into.  It’s really cold at Nuvuk, even compared to Barrow, and the wind comes right off the ice.  With the field season so short, and the erosion ongoing, we don’t take many weather days.

We’ve also been seeing who is returning, and for how much of the season they are available.  Many of the high school students who want to work at Nuvuk are active in many things, including sports (with summer camps), band, Mayor’s Youth Advisory Council, Model UN, and Rural Alaska Honors Institute.  Most of these involve some travel, so scheduling is complex.  We need to have a good-size crew, but not more than we have 4-wheelers for (allowing for a couple of folks in the lab or sick).  I actually do that in MS Project, just so I can get a clear picture and spot pinch-points more easily.

Anyway, we’ve got all the high school students selected, and have notified most of them, except for the ones who are out of town on family vacations.  We’ve also got one person on tap for the NSF-funded crew, but it looks like we might have room for 1-2 more, since the planned GPR component fell through.  Rhett Herman, a geophysicist from Radford U. in Virginia who has worked with us at Nuvuk in the past, was going to do some geophysical prospecting for burials, which would save us much time & effort.  He had hoped to run a field school, but funding was not available for this summer, so a couple of interested students were going to come up as participants in the dig and help with the GPR on the side.  Rhett’s wife has come down with some unexplained health problems, and he obviously doesn’t want to travel so far while they are unresolved. Looks like -2 for the crew.  So I need to see if I can find suitable replacements.