I have gotten far enough along in getting over the back surgery that I finally have enough energy to do things that are not strictly essential for work or staying fed. So we are ramping things up in the lab.
We are looking for a few more people to work in the lab here in Barrow, joining the current crew on weekdays or weekends. Due to the source of funding, these folks will need to be high school or college students. We are also looking for volunteers. I will post the announcements on here a static page and also as posts.
We aren’t sure yet if we will have funds available to do fieldwork this summer, but we are hopeful. If we do get into the field this summer, people who have lab experience will have priority for fieldwork jobs.
If you are interested, please contact me ASAP. Please pass this on to anyone you know who might be interested.
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’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.
Things got rather busy around here, since I hadn’t actually been planning to be in the field, and had several other things going at work that required some time and attention. Combined with rather chilly weather and a commute that did my no-longer-fused spine no favors, I wound up putting sleep ahead of updating the blog. Now that the fieldwork is done & I’m getting everything else caught up, time for an update on what happened before the season ended.
We managed to get quite a bit accomplished before the weather stopped us. Fortunately, the entrances to the lagoons closed up, and we generally had less trouble getting to the site in September, thank goodness! In the end, we had just hit frozen ground at the back corner of the excavation when everything started freezing up. This is good, since that means everything behind/below that should still be in great shape if erosion doesn’t get to it before we can. We actually had some really lovely days. And enough wind so no bugs!
The floor that we had encountered in the south end of the trench cleaned up nicely. There had been a pot in the corner, but all that was left was a pile of smashed sherds. The digging of the pit that someone had put in above it had probably smashed what was left. Near where the arrow shafts were found was an area of floor so soaked with marine mammal oil that you could actually wipe it off of one patch of floor. It seems most likely that this was a tent floor, since there was no evidence of structure otherwise, and it was not far enough below the surface for a semi-subterranean house.
The house (at least I think it was a house) proved very complex. The small area we were able to open was not big enough to let me see what was going on well enough to be definite. However, there seem to have been several floors. We were not able to get down to them before freeze up, but we determined that there were several layers of midden (trash deposit) on them, so it would appear that the house must have been abandoned and reused, rather than just rebuilt.
At some point in the sequence, it looks like the structure may have had a meat cache pit (sort of the forerunner of today’s ice cellars) in it. There was a distinct line of hardened red marine mammal oil
We got all the way to the bottom of the large post in the northern half of the trench. It turned out to be a later addition, dug into an existing midden, and chocked with a seal sacrum, a walrus vertebra and a broken pick head. There were two smaller (and apparently earlier) posts very close to it, one of which had a deposit of shell next to it. That will be interesting if we can ID any of them.
We had been working as fast as we could on the structures at Walakpa. Given how far north we are, “Winter is coming!” pretty much applies as soon as it starts thawing in spring. We had a fair bit of windy weather, so it wasn’t pleasant working conditions, but the ambient temperature was generally above freezing, so the ground remained soft, and we were able to continue excavation.
The batteries on the transit were not happy, and we pretty much needed to have one charging at all times, or risk shut-down until we could charge a battery. The batteries are a bit old, and need to be re-celled or replaced, but since I hadn’t expected to be excavating this summer, that was scheduled to happen over the coming winter, which left us a bit handicapped.
But then, last Monday, there was a dusting of snow on the ground in the morning, and it didn’t melt. Further south in Alaska, snow on the tops of the mountains is often called “Termination Dust” since its appearance signals the beginning of the end of the summer season. And so it was here.
I had started accumulating materials to protect the site over the weekend. UIC Construction had some surplus damaged materials in their yard which would otherwise have just gone to the dump, and they were kind enough to donate them to the cause. Monday, we started hauling them down to Walakpa.
We kept digging, since the ground wasn’t frozen. The next morning, there was a lot more snow on the beach, and the ground was really stiff although we did manage to dig a bit more and screen all but two buckets.
We met a polar bear on the way down to the site. It was tired, resting on the beach, but was so wary that it got up and moved before we could detour around it so it could rest.
We put particle board along the erosion face of the site, and gathered sods from the beach to stack up to hold them in place. We also used upright driftwood to help hold this in place. By the end of the day, I concluded that things were freezing to the point where only a pickax would move dirt, which would sort of defeat the purpose of archaeological excavation, so we started hauling gear back to town that night.
We allowed the site to freeze more the next day, and Thursday we went down to put the site to bed & take down the tent.
We put a layer of whiteboard insulation on the top and front of the site, and then covered it with geotextile fabric, fastened in place with spikes. Then we covered that with the original sods which had been saved.
Once we had that taken care of, the gear had to be packed up and the tent taken down. We spray painted the hubs of the Arctic Oven frame so the next folks who set it up will have an easier time of it than we did doing it without instructions.
Now all we can do is hope and pray that there are no storms before the ocean freezes up that generate waves big enough to reach the site, and if there are, that they don’t last long enough to destroy the protection that we built. If we are fortunate, it will still be there next year, and we can learn more.
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.
We made pretty good progress at Walakpa this week. This, despite a few challenges.
On Tuesday, we had a really small crew, due to a variety of circumstances. Only Trina, Mary Beth & I made it out. It was quite a cold day, with ice on the puddles when we got to Walakpa (or Monument).
We decided to leave the screening for another day and just excavate. It was cold enough that we actually took advantage of the removable floor in the Arctic Oven tent on site and used the Coleman stove inside, but on the ground.
The next morning, we had a bigger crew, but there was snow on the ground when we set off.
We were not expecting to have a great day, but in fact it was warmer than the day before (no ice), and we started getting down to what seems to be structural wood from the house roof, so that was fairly satisfying. We got a lot of water screening done, as well. The beach had really stabilized, so we were able to go the whole way on hard sand, and even most of the lagoons had closed up, with sandbars across the entrances that we could just drive across. The commute to the site was much quicker.
Thursday did not go well. We headed out, only to find that for some reason, the waves were really coming up the beach and running into the lagoons, so that we were not able to get across the stream by the gravel pit. We went around and through the gravel pit, but then could not get across the stream by Nunavak. We did see a polar bear in the water near a dead walrus). I decided we should try to go around, since it was otherwise a nice day & I hated to lose it, but we didn’t have any extra gas along, and by the time we were half-way around, even cutting across country rather than following the shoreline, it was clear that some of the Polaris’s are sort of gas hogs. So back we went to the road, with only one minor mishap when the Tubby trailer bounced into a very wet low-centered polygon and dragged the ATV half-way in. I got my feet wet getting it unstuck, but we still went back down to the beach so that David Pettibone could get a picture of the bear, still in the water, from a safe distance.
Today, despite no major change in wind strength or direction, was very different. The beach was back to Wednesday’s shape, and we got to the site easily. It was quite sunny in the morning, and we got right to work. We had six people, so we started with 4 excavating and 2 screening.
I played around with my iPad mini for taking pictures to supplement field notes & drawings. I don’t draw all that well, and used to take Polaroids and draw on them, but that technology is gone and wasn’t that stable anyway. I’ve use a couple of programs to annotate lab photos, but this was the first time I tried it in the field. I used iAnnotate PDF, which lets you put sound files on the image, associated with notes or drawings. They open fine in Acrobat. This will be quite handy.
Seventy-eight years ago, it was a foggy day at Walakpa. The Okpeaha family was camping there. A floatplane descended out of the fog, and two men asked how to get to Barrow, since they had lost their bearings in the fog. Getting directions, the got back in the plane and took off. The engine failed, and the nose-heavy aircraft crashed into the lagoon and flipped. Unable to reach the plane to help the men, Clare Okpeaha ran all the way to Brower’s Trading Post in Barrow, over 12 miles of very rough going, to get help. When boats got back to Walakpa & they got to the plane, it became clear the men had been killed instantly. They were Will Rogers, a noted humorist and political commentator, who was traveling around Alaska to get stories for the newspapers, and Wiley Post, probably the most famous American aviator of the time after Charles Lindbergh.
The crash was national news at the time, and a few years later a monument was erected near the site, followed some time later by another one. These are the monuments that show up in some of the pictures of the site. For some reason, these are on the National Register of Historic Places, but the archaeological site isn’t.
The first monument , looking out over the lagoon where the crash occurred.
Today was a much better day at Walakpa. We headed down with 7 volunteers, including David Pettibone, Michael Berger, dental extern Temurkin Cucukov, and the entire Von Duyke family, plus Marybeth Timm from the Inupiat Heritage Center. The stream was running high and fast at Nunavak, but we got across, although not before I got my boot wet. With that many people, it seemed worth getting the water screening going, so we did, using a small pump to take water out of the lagoon. Alan & Scott Kerner happened by on an ATV ride and pitched in for a while as well.
Wet screeners in action by the lagoon.
The rest of us continued with taking down the rather disturbed level under the sod. It would be a lot easier if we could just shovel it out, but the bluff doesn’t seem that stable & we’re afraid we’ll knock the whole thing down if we shovel, especially since there are still a lot of roots holding things together at this level.
Excavating the disturbed layer. Note the Visqueen.
A while after we got there, a boat pulled in, and Jeff Rasic from the National Park Service (in town for a meeting at the Inupiat Heritage Center) Patuk Glenn (IHC) and Kunneak Nageak (IHLC) appeared. They got a good tour, and spent a bit of time wandering around. Jeff found a big sod with a lot of artifacts in it, including several very nice potsherds, one with residue, which we collected.
Excavation at Walakpa. L. to R. Marybeth Timm, Temerkin Cucukov, Michael Berger, Jeff Rasic, David Pettibone & Trina Brower.
The ride home was even more exciting. Nunavak wasn’t too bad, but they were unloading a barge on the beach, so we took the old Nunavak “road” back to town. It has pretty much disappeared back into the tundra on the middle section the last few years, and it was a very muddy ride!
We went to Walakpa today. I’d heard that Nunavak might be running too hard to cross, so we were sort of preparing for having to ride around on the tundra, which would be time-consuming and bone-rattling. When we got there, we were able to find a couple of ways across, so no worries.
We made good progress on removing the sod & an underlying level of disturbed soil. Aside from the fact that it contains random fragments of bone, charcoal, rocks, lumps of clay, etc, the fact that it is on top of Visqueen in a lot of places is a strong hint.
The last bits of the overhang are gone. One fell, and the rest we cut off where it was cracking. It looks like the ground squirrels had a tunnel where the crack was, so there really wasn’t much holding it. Some of what came off looked like a sod wall, but it had part of a plastic eyeglasses frame in it, so it can’t be very old, or associated with the house. We are almost at the point where we should be able to excavate normally.
Yesterday and today were great days for Barrow. Last night, showing real persistence in the face of very discouraging conditions this spring, a number of crews went out. Anagi crew took a 54 footer, the first whale taken in Barrow this spring (or summer, as some of my Facebook friends pointed out). The whale reached the beach just after midnight, according to Coby, who took a picture of the landing at 12:05 AM.
I had gone to bed early, trying to make up for sleep lost due to something or other wrong with my shoulder, and slept right through it. None of my co-workers did. I got a call at 7AM from Trina, who had been helping all night and had realized she couldn’t stay awake for work (or give rides to the others). I headed for town. I stopped at the whale first. As you can see, the weather wasn’t great, as it often isn’t in the morning in summer, and it actually started raining pretty hard while I was there.
A bowhead whale weighs roughly a ton a foot, so cutting up a whale this big involves a tremendous amount of labor. People had been working for about nine hours at this point, and still had a way to go. The maktak (skin & blubber–very tasty indeed) was mostly off. There was a bit waiting to be taken either to the captain’s cellar to be put away or divided as shares, but a lot of it had clearly already been taken care of and put away.
I thought a panorama of the scene might be interesting, so–thanks iPhone.
After that, I got Coby, who had apparently only been at the whale until 2:30 AM, & we tried to find RJ, with no luck. Went back to the BARC to discover a message from my assistant Tammy, who had been at the whale until 4AM, saying she would be late. Since she is Michael’s ride, he wasn’t there either. Coby & RJ started working, and I started trying some VZAP troubleshooting, which required running a logger while trying to access the site and then forwarding the logs to the VZAP team at ISU. I hope it helps, and we don’t discover the problem is just awful connectivity. Jan, the middle school teacher who is volunteering, wasn’t in, but she rides her ATV to the lab, so we figured she had decided the rain was a bit much. After I finished with the logging on the computers, I fired up my email, to discover one from Jan saying she had apparently slept right through her alarm, because she’d been at the whale until after 2 AM! Coby and RJ decided to call it a day around noon, to go back to the whale.
All this made for limited progress in the morning. A good bit of the afternoon was taken up with things connected with various non-archaeology projects I manage.
The weather warmed up a good bit later, and the south wind was actually ablating the snow in the drifts by the snow fences, making fog billow off them. It was pretty spooky looking.
ADDED 7/1/2013: If you don’t think people should hunt whales, well, it’s a free country and you are entitled to your opinion. But before you try to post a rude comment, please check here and here.