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.


Sunshine & blue skies…

…and a full crew.  We started work on the burial under the plank.  It took quite a while, as the plank was complex to define.  It was all one piece, in some places up to 9 cm thick, and had obviously required a great deal of work and skill to make.  The top surface looked like the outer surface of the tree.  The bottom surface showed evidence of burning, in some areas completely charcoal.  It should be good for C14 dating.

The remains are those of a large male.  Preservation is a bit variable, but it looks like there might be some ribs that could yield aDNA.  In any event, he will be safely out of the trail.

Many on the crew did STPs.  So far nothing has shown up.  It is beginning to look as if there is a gap in the burials (or at least a much thinner distribution).  I’ve begun to wonder if this could be the result of a village move due to erosion, which brought the village close to the cemetery and made them skip a bit of ground to put the new cemetery at a proper distance from their residences.

At least it was a beautiful day.

Back at it…

After a day off, we were back in the field today.  The GPR hits we tested were mostly concentrations of water, and buried whale bones (not part of graves, unless it was a whale grave).  However, we also looked at two other areas that had turned up in the trails on the first day’s walkover.  One proved to be nothing but a concentration of refuse.  The other wasn’t looking much more promising, with peat and a little wood, but we took it down to expose all the wood, and low and behold, a very large piece of wood indeed, which is a burial cover.  We will have to excavate that tomorrow.  There will also be a new set of GPR results to test.

The burial cover exposed. That is one piece of wood! The dustpan is covering what may be a bone, so the photo can be used for the public.

There is also some wood exposed on the erosion face at what looks like the Ipiutak level, including something that looks like architecture.

Notched log resting on another log. Ipiutak?

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.

…turns into five…or possibly six (!)

It was fairly windy today, which made it a bit colder.  The GPR sleds are working much better, and even what they got yesterday looks promising without elevation correction.   They used a backpack Trimble GPS unit to get accurate elevations, and will use that to correct the GPR images.

The burial is becoming more complicated.  There are indeed 2 primary individuals, the most recent (a woman, we think) one whose grave cross-cut another smaller person’s grave.  The woman had a couple of leg bones from a smaller person in her “box”, which may or may not come from the smaller person whose grave was cross-cut.  There were also a few cranial fragments from a small child in the box, and a few elements from a sub-adult (but not the small child) turned up today.  There is also a pelvis from a large man, which makes at least 5 individuals.  If the leg bones don’t come from the second grave, it could be six.

We have expanded a bit and aren’t seeing much sign of any grave structures, so we are beginning to wonder if some of these individuals aren’t buried some meters away, with a few parts having been moved by vehicular traffic.  This may wind up being a case for the GPR.

One turns into three…

It was a great day in the field, with really lovely weather.  Dennis O’Rourke got in last night and joined us, as did Rhett Herman, & his student Jared Palmer with the GPR gear.

Crew members at the start of the day

We started excavation of the burial that had been found in the road.  As with most road burials it has suffered some disturbance.  At first it looked like there was a large man (found part of his pelvis), then a neck vertebra from a small person showed up, then one skull, then another, and then the nasal area from a third (!) person.  We still have more to do tomorrow, so this may change, but at the moment it looks like there may have been two burial side by side, and a third burial was dug across one of them at a later date.

Starting excavation of the burial

The GPR  guys had a good workout.  They had set up the units on carts, which had worked well yesterday on the beach near NARL, but something at Nuvuk must be different, because they described it as being like “pushing a shopping cart in sand.”  Naturally, this meant that they got less done than they had hoped, but they saw some things and will have a plan view in the morning.  I saw them this evening, and they’d already changed the configuration to a dragable sled, which seems like it might make tomorrow better for them.

GPR gear ("Eva") in foreground, with flagged survey grid in rear
Jared pushing the GPR lawnmower in a brief foggy period

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.