There is a very large storm, with winds up to 50 mph and big waves from the west battering the Chukchi coastline from Barrow south. It has created a major storm surge, with big waves and coastal erosion. An emergency has been declared in Barrow due to flooding and road damage.
I flew back from Wainwright yesterday evening, and even through the storm was just building, the waves were already hitting Walakpa. I couldn’t get pictures but it did not look good.
Today was much worse. Late this afternoon, I got a series of calls about something washing out at Ukkuqsi, where the little frozen girl Aġnaiyaaq was found. Aqamak Okpik from IHLC got things organized, with Morrie Lemen coming out to NARL in a bigger truck than mine to take me in to take a look. The North Slope Borough Fire Department came over, and two firefighters suited up and tied a rope onto me so I could go down and take a look.
The big concern was that a burial was eroding out, since there have been several in that area. In the end, it looked like part of a house (maybe two superimposed) with a whalebone and a baleen toboggan. We retrieved a few bones and a piece of structural wood that were going to fall in any minute, and hope to be able to get a radiocarbon date or two. I only got hit by one big wave.
Hope to get some video or at least frame grabs available soon.
We got up with the goal of getting packed up. It wasn’t clear if the UICS logistics staff would be able to come and get us today, but we decided to finish all the field work, and pack up as much as possible. We got right on the screening, and recording of the edges of the midden and the units on the Pipe Monument mound. Owen went to work on a detailed profile of CS 2.
Once that was well in hand, it still wasn’t clear if we would be able to get home. I needed to go in to Barrow to make sure everything was progressing with the other project, so we decided I could take trailer load of field gear, samples and some of my gear back to town. That way, we would need less help getting back, and if the pickup wasn’t going to happen until tomorrow, I could bring back my sleeping bag and sleep in the mess tent.
Once I got to town, I unloaded and did some more work on the other project. It turned out that some logistics folks were available, so I went back down with them, and we managed to get everything back to town, and into the UICS yellow building. Everybody got to sleep in a real bed.
Last night was not particularly restful. The collapse had complicated matters quite a bit. However, after breakfast, we went back to work.
The old location was not viable, so I picked a new spot about a meter south, which became Column Sample 2 (CS 2). There was a bit of an overhang, and a very deep crack behind the bluff face. We needed to get all that material out of there. It took a bit of thought to figure out how to do it (not a usual archaeological operation, fortunately). Finally, we put a blue tarp down on the bottom of the main cleft so we could drag fill without anyone having to be under any overhangs or unstable areas, everybody got out of the way, and I cut the overhang back while standing as far back from it as possible. We then took the material out with a bucket brigade. Once that was done, I levered all the cracked material off, and we took it out the same way.
Once that was done, I decided that we would excavate in levels labeled with letters, so we could proceed quickly, rather than wait for Owen to try to match levels in the detailed CS1 profile, which could have been a slow process. It seemed like the fairly warm, dry weather was letting the face dry out while detailed profiling was happening, and the longer it was exposed the more chance of another collapse. Owen would do another detailed profile after we got the column sample.
I also decided to make the sample a bit smaller in volume. CS 1 we had been trying for 75 cm x 75 cm (mostly because that size fit between some prior disturbances), but 50 cm x 50 cm seemed more manageable in the time we had left. One gallon from each sub level was retained as a bulk sample, and the remainder of sediment from the sub level was screened through 1/8″ and 1/4″ mesh.
We were just getting started when someone arrived to do a coastal DGPS survey that is part of the coastal mapping aspect of the Barrow Area Information Database project. He passed on a message that said my boss needed me to come back into town. (There is no effective connectivity at Walakpa, which is why this is being posted after the fact). I reviewed recording stratigraphy (or artifacts if any showed up) with Laura Crawford, made sure everyone knew how to use the InReach is needed, and headed back to Barrow by ATV around 1PM.
Something had come up with one of the compliance projects we are working on, and I needed to talk to people and draft some documents. I made it back to Walakpa around 10PM.
On the way, I met some folks out for an evening ride, and they stopped over to visit. One of them had spent a lot of time at Walakpa when she was younger, and had some great stories. I hope we can get them recorded for future generations.
The rest of the folks had managed to complete the column sample, so we talked about closing up shop tomorrow. We just need to finish screening, record the Test Units on the Pipe Monument midden, and backfill the TUs.
Owen and Laura got up early and screened what we had dug last night. Owen worked to finish the profile. There is an apparent marine level at Level 13.
We had problems with both transit and radio batteries. Despite that, I showed Laura how to run the transit, so I don’t have to be awake all the time. We shot in the remaining levels of CS 1, as well as the new test units on the mound.
Laura and Owen continued taking CS 1 down. Unfortunately, after the dinner break, they returned to find that the bottom of the profile had collapsed.
It was a pretty depressing situation. It left an overhang, so there was no way to just continue safely. It mean that we would have to start over again in the morning.
We went to work in earnest today. Owen went to work on recording the stratigraphy of the profile we had chosen for the column sample (CS 1). I had him marking the bottom of each level so we could continue excavation even after he went to sleep. Anne Garland and Laura kept working on the tests on the mound with the monument. The SW quad of the 1×1 came down on a cryoturbated sterile layer. There was metal throughout the cultural levels. We expanded northward to examine some wood in that wall.
Meanwhile, I set up the transit and began shooting in the CS 1 profile, as well as the bluff edge. The NW quad of TU 1 had similar results, so we put some 50x50s closer to the bluff edge to see if we could find datable material and the edge of the feature.
Mary Beth Timm and I took naps, so we could stay up late and work on the CS 1 profile. After dinner, we shot in the upper levels of the CS 1 profile, as well as a polar bear jaw that was exposed in Level 12, so that it would not get stepped on. Mary Beth & I started excavating CS 1. We are excavating in natural stratigraphic levels, with any level that is more than 5 cm in depth broken into 5 cm sub-levels. One gallon from each 5 cm is being kept as a bulk sample, and we are screening the remainder.
We kept going until it go so dark that we really couldn’t see the soil colors, which was around 2 AM. We had accomplished a fair bit, so we headed off to bed.
The weather is often best at night. It was really beautiful. A pair of loons was swimming on the lagoon.
Jeff Rasic from the National Park Service, along with Rebekah DeAngelo from Yale and her grad student Brooke Luokkala are in town to do some work, along with Laura Crawford, at the Birnirk National Historic Landmark site, which is on UIC lands (and yes, the actual name of the place is Piġniq, but the site has been written about as Birnirk, so I’m using that name for the site). Becky and Brooke got in Sunday, after travel from the east coast, and Jeff got in yesterday. However, the weather was pretty bad, so we postponed real fieldwork until today.
I did see them in the field briefly yesterday. I had to take a quick trip to the point to check on something for UIC Lands. On the way back, I met them near the Birnirk site, unfortunately a bit stuck in gravel. They were successfully extracted and continued their tour of Barrow.
Today we went out to Birnirk. We looked at all the mounds, Jeff got GPS points on mounds and other reference points, and Laura did quite a bit of coring. I flagged the perimeter of a “box” that we hope to have some of Craig Tweedie’s crew do detailed DGPS measurements on. That data can be used to make a contour map of the site, which can then be compared to the map James Ford made in the early 1950s, when he was there with Carter. It should be interesting to see how much sea level has changed. It clearly has risen since the earliest houses were occupied, and even since the early aerial photos, but the question is, how much?
The crew (Owen Mason, Anne Garland, Mary Beth Timm, Laura Crawford and myself) gathered out at NARL, at a small yellow warehouse. We were using UIC Science archaeological gear. IHLC & Ilisagvik College let us use some tents, sleeping pads & kitchen gear. We managed to get everything packed into side-by-sides and trailers and headed off to Walakpa with Sean Gunnells, Oona Edwardsen and Ray Kious of the UICS logistics staff who weren’t otherwise occupied.
We got to Walakpa around 2PM. We got camp set up, with a slight hitch because some of the tents had not been repacked properly when last used. However, the logistics staff dealt with it, and headed back to town.
We uncovered portions of the bluff so that we could examine the profiles and decide where we want to take the column sample. While walking the beach examining the bluff profiles, we noticed that there was a cultural layer exposed in the mound with one of the two monuments on it. Anne Garland laid out a 1×1 meter test, well back from the edge of the bluff, to see if it continued across the mound.
It was clear that we couldn’t safely do a profile in the central area where the meat cache had been, since there was still an overhang. In addition, some of the geotextile fabric protecting the site was pinned by collapse of bluffs, preventing its removal. Eventually, after cleaning profiles on either side of the overhang, we picked a spot and Owen went to work on a detailed drawing.
We had visitors in the early morning, a young couple whose ATV had a flat, and were hoping that we had a tire pump. Unfortunately, we didn’t, so they headed on up the coast with both of them on one side of the ATV.
This summer was unexpectedly quite on the archaeology front. The non-profit through which my grants were run had some problems, which meant that work had to stop and I had to move my grants. This turned into a rather long drawn-out process, with many fits and starts. In the end, I was appointed as a Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology at Bryn Mawr College and the three grants on which I am PI (Principal Investigator) were moved. We are still finalizing moving the purchase orders to allow for work to proceed on the WALRUS grant, but hope to get it done this coming week.
We had hoped to be doing some work at Walakpa, which had survived the winter unscathed, but despite the North Slope Borough asking for UIC Science’s Certificate of Insurance, which usually happens when a contract is about to be awarded (good thing, the insurance company charges to issue those things), nothing was issued. Then came the first week in September.
I was in Point Hope monitoring the drilling of a geotechnical test hole for a possible fiber project. It took an extra day to get there from Kotzebue, because the weather was so stormy that planes couldn’t land in Point Hope. We didn’t find anything during the drilling, but the extra day gave me a chance to visit with Molly Odell and some other colleagues who had been working in Kotzebue and look at some of what they had recovered during their field season. That was fun, but unfortunately the same storm really did some damage at Walakpa.
The site was undermined by high surf. Mark Ahsoak Jr. kept me posted (Taikuu Mark) via Facebook message, and it was pretty depressing. In the end, the house we were working on last year seem to have been entirely obliterated. A big slump block broke off and is resting on the beach.
I went down with a crew from UIC Science Logistics to evaluate it. We found that there had been a lot more Visqueen under the surface than we had thought. The stratigraphy is very complex, with a very large feature containing solidified marine mammal oil, some artifacts and what appears to be maqtaq at the landward edge of the slump block.
Unfortunately, the marine mammal oil feature is starting to break loose from the main slump block and tip back into the crack between the block and the intact site. We put driftwood props under it, and then stopped all work under the overhang, since it could easily kill someone.
We didn’t find any loose artifacts, although there were a number of visible artifacts that were frozen in. Some folks had been collecting them and turning them in, which is great. I’d really like to thank everyone who has been helping in this way. Unfortunately, some other people have just been collecting them. Several of the artifacts that we saw the first day were gone by the time we returned.
After we headed home, the next day was spent in getting a crew and material to do some stabilization. Several of the Barrow-based UIC subsidiaries pitched in with materials, crew and transport, and we went back to put some temporary protection on the site. We were able to cover almost all the eroding surfaces with geotextile fabric , secured with some cutdown metal support fasteners and sandbags.
We made another trip down with the theodolite to map the new boundaries of the site. This let us document the loss of over 33 feet (11+ m) in that storm alone. We also put a lot more sandbags on the site, and so far it has resisted the weather.
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.
I am currently in Washington, DC, participating in a workshop on Arctic Research and Logistic Support planning. The idea is to get a group of scientists working in the Arctic together to see what we think Arctic research will be like in 10-20 years, and what sort of logistic support will be needed. Then, action steps to get there from here will be formulated. One hopes it is not just an exercise in futility.
As is usual at such gatherings, there are not very many social scientists. There are a lot of physical scientists (marine, terrestrial & atmospheric) and a fair number of biology types. Many of the groups are quite interested in new “toys” (UAVs) and the like, as well as more icebreakers. Better connectivity is also something that is high on most people’s lists, mine included. What I find interesting as an anthropologist is how the cultures of various disciplines vary so widely. One of the breakout sessions was organized more or less by location of research (with social sciences its own group). I actually went to the Coastal group, since I’d just had lunch with Sophia Perdikaris & Genny LeMoine, both of whom are archaeologists, who were going to be in the social science group, and I thought it might be more valuable to get a social science voice into one of the other groups.
The variation in the visions of the groups when they reported back was quite striking. Although there were some things all agreed on, one group saw research in 10-20 years as being done remotely. They even thought that maybe social science could be conducted through social media. Unfortunately they didn’t describe how they imagined one could excavate a site that way; I’m sure it would be a lot warmer than what I was doing last month!
While all that was going on, the Alaska Dispatch picked up Abra’s Arctic Sounder story. Then Archaeology magazine added it to their website news, even asking if they could use a specific picture from this blog. Then they used another one… Oh, well. And I got another interview request.
For some reason, this year there has been quite a bit of media interest in Barrow and archaeology. To begin with, there were several film crews in Barrow while we were working at Walakpa, two of which actually came out to the site and filmed as well as filming in the lab. Only one of them has anything out yet. PBS filmed for several both in the field and in the lab, and a little bit of it made it into this piece, and a shot in the slideshow that they put up on the web in conjunction with the series on sea ice change. It was a very buggy day in the field, and it was quite the challenge not to be swatting mosquitoes all the time.
Oh, and the buoy experiment that Ignatius Rigor is working on in the film clip is supported by UIC Science staff (not that they have to do much, the idea is to see how the buoys do with no servicing). Their data can be compared to data from ARM’s established serviced meteorological instruments. That way, when scientists get buoy data, they have an idea how reliable it is, and if there are any special considerations in interpretation (becoming uncalibrated over time, etc.)
We’ve also gotten interest from the press. Abra Stolte-Patkotak, one of our volunteers writes for the Arctic Sounder, and did a piece on the Walakpa excavations, which is on-line here. For some reason, they don’t have the picture that was published up on-line, but I will ask Abra if I can put it up here & add it if so.
I am currently working with a free-lancer who has interviewed me and asked me to fact check the article before he goes further. A very good idea, as many years ago I was interviewed by a reporter who mis-heard my answer to the question of how far back in time human occupation of the Barrow area was archaeologically demonstrated to extend. I said “maybe 4 to 5 thousand years” which was what people thought reasonable for Denbigh at the time. He refused fact-checking help, and published an article in which I was directly quoted as saying “45,000 years”. Although Glenn & I could never get the Arctic Sounder to mail our subscription to us in Pennsylvania, apparently Tiger Burch could. I got a very puzzled email from him after the article came out, in which I believe he was politely trying to ask me if I’d lost my mind. Fortunately, he had enough experience with the press that he believed the explanation.
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.