Back from the field

We got into town late last Thursday.  The field season went pretty well, after a slow start due to ice preventing us from getting out.  We lost a few days to major storms, but we had a great crew and accomplished a lot.

Breaking camp was a bit of a challenge, since we were down to seven people in the field. The big boat was scheduled to arrive at 9AM, so we broke everything down the day before except for the mess tent and the latrine, plus our sleeping tents.  Then we got up at 6 AM and took down all the sleeping tents, and started ferrying gear to the beach with the ATV & trailer.

It turned out the boat ramp wasn’t in the water back in town, so the boat didn’t make it until nearly 1PM, after having to launch into Elson Lagoon and go around Point Barrow.  It was a cold morning, and once we had stuff packed, it was hard to stay warm, especially since we’d dressed for hard work and packed up everything else.  At one point, several of the crew were napping in a ditch.

Crew members napping.

The boat had to make two trips, so we sent 3 people up with the first load, and then 3 more with the second.  I drove the ATV & Tubby back to town, so I was the last one in.  I left before the boat, but Doctor Island is pretty fast, and I was riding into a north wind and kept meeting people and stopping to chat, so they beat me home.

Loading the boat.  Photo courtesy of Zac Peterson.
Heading home.  Photo courtesy of Zac Peterson.

Our first day back was the last day of the UIC Science Fair, and the archaeology lab was featured tour.  Also I had a presentation scheduled.  Everyone was really tired, but we managed to pull things together for a good tour, and in fact had visitors well past the scheduled end of tours.  The presentation was well attended.

As I write this, another early storm with winds from the West is brewing, with predictions of coastal erosion.



All ready

Almost the entire crew has made it out to the site.  Some of them went down in the morning and set up a lot of things.  Half of them came back and took some more people and gear down, and should be heading back soon.

Meanwhile back in town Katrina Watson got the electronics packed up and into the yellow shed, while I got both lab computers back on the network, connected them to the project dropbox and put all the necessary files on them.  I reviewed the workflow with Katrina, who will be cycling in and of town, since she’s from here and her family and kids are here for the summer.  That means she can provide a bit of continuity for the lab.

I’m going down in the morning.  Since the wind is supposed to stay east for a few days, we hope a boat can go down on Monday and bring most of the rest of the heavy stuff (chairs, wood for tables) and more delicate things (cameras, computers, transit) down.

The crew asked for some board games.  I posted on Facebook to see if anyone in town had any they weren’t using anymore, and in about 2 minutes, Doe Doe Edwardsen said she had 5 we could use.  She even had them delivered!  Quyanaqpak Edwardsen family!

One of our international volunteers is coming a bit later.  She is currently working somewhere without internet, so she’s been communicating as she can.  When I got her itinerary, it became clear she’s going to have to overnight in Anchorage both ways.  Back to Facebook, and within a few minutes archaeologist friends Monty Rogers and Katie Meyers had offered to put her up.

Most of the archaeology crew are volunteers, and others are putting in a lot of volunteer time on top of what is paid.  Not everyone can take time and go into the field.  But we can’t do it without help, and the people like Doe Doe and Monte chipping in make this salvage possible.  The true Alaska spirit.  We appreciate every bit of help.


People are arriving!

The first of the crew members have arrived.  The field school starts tomorrow morning.  We’re spending the first week in town so we can go over some things inside where it is warm  not windy, and the students can experience Nalukataq and the 4th of July games.  As it turns out, one of them is from Barrow, so it’s not a new experience, but she’ll get to hang out with her family and do field school, so that’s a good thing.

The other part of this is that I think it is important for students to understand what goes into the logistics of a project, so they will get to help with and learn about that aspect of archaeology.  Better than trying to learn on the fly when they are in charge, like some of my friends have had to do!

I spent the day getting the field forms updated and finalized, so we can start printing them on waterproof paper tomorrow.  Now to update the lab forms and get the workflow established so we can hand off between crew members as they come and go.  Several of them are returners, so they know the routine, but it is always a good thing to have documented.

Level_unit form 2017

I added the bit about not writing on the back of the form after having to flip dozens of forms over to scan both sides.  Not a good use of time.

Talking with Teachers

I had a fun morning talking to about 40 elementary school teachers from the North Slope Borough School District.  They were having an in-service.  The original plan was to take them out to Walakpa by boat, but the weather this weekend features snow, a bit of rain and winds up to 30 mph.  So–not boating weather.

Since we knew this a couple of days ago, we were able to get the lab ready for visitors.  We (Ashtyn & I) put out several drawers with some of the more interesting artifacts from Walakpa and Nuvuk.  I put together a slide show to give them an idea about the project, which we showed before they visit d the lab.  I also talked a bit about the history of science in Barrow, and the building of the BARC.

A number of the teachers are interested in bringing their classes out to the lab.  A few of them are also interesting in volunteering, either in the lab or as photographers.  And I think I probably sold a bunch of the Barrow Science hoodies, given how many people asked how they could buy one :-).

Getting closer

Time is flying before the field season.  It has been insanely busy trying to get some projects to a point that they can be left for a few weeks while we’re in the field, while at the same time getting set to actually go to the field.  We have been ordering things, and waiting for them to get here so we can build things, or pack things or prep meals or…   And of course, this being the Arctic, shipping delays abound.  However, we have gotten the replacement cover for a Weatherport, all the recalled transit batteries, extra new batteries for the handheld radios, Rite in the Rain paper for field forms, the refurbished iPads, the nice new big First Aid kits, chaining pins, Sharpies (lots of Sharpies) and a bunch of other goodies.  I got my new tent stuff sack (the original lasted one trip, and all the duct tape in the world isn’t enough to hold what’s left together if I actually put the tent in it) and my InReach.  We are still waiting on the parts for a water screening station, and the dry goods.

The lab looks a mess, because everything is still out from the inventory, and needs to be packed, but some of the things to pack it in are part of the freight.  Not optimal, but it will sort itself out.

The freeze and chill food got in, and Kaare will be working with the volunteers to prep a lot of meals to freeze before we head down.  That is, once there are enough volunteers here.

The first of the volunteers were to get in Tuesday night, but the plane couldn’t land, so they all wound up heading back to Anchorage, getting in quite late.  One got on the early flight today on standby, but the rest are now coming tomorrow morning.  I figured maybe 2 nights in Anchorage would be a student budget-buster (having slept under some stairs once when stranded in England for a week on the way home from the field–Laker had raised ticket prices over the summer and I didn’t have a credit card), so I posted on a couple of northern archaeology Facebook groups, and had 5 offers of places to stay from folks in Anchorage within a couple of hours.  In the end, folks couldn’t get refunds for the nights they paid for (a downside of online booking, I guess), but if anyone else gets stranded overnight on the way in or out, at least I’ve got a bunch of phone numbers and we should be able to help out.  Gotta love Alaskan archaeologists.

Kaare made it to Walakpa, although there is still snow on the beach.  There has been a good bit more slumping, but it looks like the overhanging block that was making access so dangerous has fallen, which is a good thing indeed.  The plan is to try to take some of the heavy stuff down tomorrow, although that may change depending on if the freight makes it in.

We’ve also got a survey to finish before we go (only got the go-ahead a week ago) and maybe a desktop study as well, depending on their timeframe (just got the go-ahead today).  Oh, and a proposal, which was just requested yesterday.

And I need to finish making sense of a bunch of dates which I have calibrated for the WALRUS project.  It looks like we have decent ranges for many of the sites based on the caribou dates.  There are a couple of sites that are confusing (possible reverse stratigraphy in big mounds) and I haven’t been able to get copies of the field notes or talk to the excavators yet.  I’ve calibrated the walrus dates using the marine curve, and it is clear there is not a standard offset from the terrestrial dates.  I’m redoing it using the best available local delta R, but I know the one for Barrow is off by several hundred years (if you use it there are a lot of bones from archaeological sites that it indicates will be dying in a couple of centuries!) and there is one site in the walrus study where one pair of dates on associated caribou and walrus is several hundred years farther apart that the other pair.  Since walrus move around, some probably more than others,  it may not make sense until we figure out where the individuals were feeding.

In Fairbanks, looking for walrus

After a rather long, drawn-out saga, everything is in place and I can draw on funds so I can work on the WALRUS project.  The delays have been really frustrating for everyone involved.   Once I get the interns on board in Barrow, we’ll get back to going through the faunal material we have there for walrus samples.

We are trying to get samples from a wide range of sites.  Since the sampling is destructive, we don’t want to use artifacts if that can be avoided.  Ideally we want  unmodified walrus parts, bone or tooth, or if we can’t get enough of them, manufacturing discards.  As a fallback, we may wind up sampling things like shovels or bola weights, assuming we can get the museum’s permission, since they are common types of artifacts, and not diagnostic (or something that is likely to be displayed).  We currently can’t use tusk parts, since there have been no modern studies to compare their chemistry to that of bones and teeth, so interpretation of results would be problematic. (If any carvers would be able to contribute some scraps from tusks along with a sample of bone and/or a tooth from the same animal, it would be a really big help).  We are also looking for caribou or some terrestrial plant material from the same place in the site for radiocarbon dating, since marine mammals incorporate old carbon and the dates are hard to interpret.

More recent archaeological projects tend to have excavated faunal material in the same way as everything else, with decent stratigraphic control, and also tend to have brought it back from the field.  However, in the early days, that was not often  the case.  Even if material was brought back, it often wasn’t cataloged in any detail, so reports are almost no help in figuring out if there is any walrus to be had in archaeological collections.  A bit of walrus shows up in catalogs, but most of it is in the form of artifacts.  A lot of walrus artifacts (particularly bone, since ivory was clearly an item of trade) suggests that the inhabitants of a site were hunting walrus, so the potential for walrus parts to exist in the collection is there.

Many of the classic sites on the coast of  Alaska have strong indications that walrus were being caught by the people who lived there, but they were excavated decades ago, and finding suitable samples in the collections was not something that could just be done by getting someone to pull a particular bag or catalog number.  It pretty much requires looking through mixed lots of artifacts and bags of bones.  So I’m in Fairbanks doing just that.

We are mostly working in the museum, but it is closed on the weekend, so we got  permission to bring a collection of faunal material to the PI (Nicole Misarti)’s lab, and we went through it yesterday.  It took some doing, but we got though it, and should have plenty of samples.  It was an adventure.  We had 24 boxes, most of them full of bags like this:

Nicole holds a bag from which the bones on the tray burst forth when she took it out of the outer bag.
Nicole holds a bag from which the bones on the tray burst forth (like a scene from Alien) when she took it out of the outer bag.  Sadly, these were almost all ringed seal parts.  Other bags from that box are on the right.

Not all of the bags were correctly labeled, or at least the labels often didn’t specify species, just element, so we had to look.

We found a few other interesting things in the process, including this really large fish bone from Point Hope.

Really big fish bone.
Really big fish bone.
The other side of the really big fish bone.
The other side of the really big fish bone.

I’m pretty sure it’s some sort of cod (Gadid) but exactly what sort?  It’s really big.  If I have time, I’ll talk to the curator of fish, but the mission is walrus samples at the moment.

A day in the lab

I spent much of Friday in the lab, selecting items from Walakpa to send off for radiocarbon dating.  We had a reasonable set of samples from 2013 and funds to run the dates, but given that that entire area is gone, I wanted to get some idea of how old some of what was exposed this fall is.  That meant I had to make some choices about what got sent and what didn’t.

We had managed to collect several caribou bones, but most of them were ex situ (not in their original location).  There are also several samples of plant material from known locations which are much more likely to be informative.  Everything had been frozen as soon as it came in from the field due to the aggressive mold we had had to deal with last year.  For carbon dating, the lab needs to have a certain minimum weight to work with (varies by each type of material), which means that the samples had to be thawed enough to allow them to be split, cleaned, and dried enough to make sure that the weights were accurate.

Beta Analytic has got a slick new sample submission interface that I had never used before.  It has a few quirks, which meant that I had to quadruple check the submissions to fix things.  I got better at it, so .  In the end, it prints out a barcoded form that you put in the package with the samples.


By the time I finished, it was too late to mail the samples on Friday.  The US Post Office in Barrow doesn’t have any counter service on Saturdays, so they’ll get mailed on Monday.

As a result, I didn’t get to see much of the sun that day.  It is almost time for it to go down for the winter, and we’ve had so much cloudy weather this year, it was a pity to miss a rare sunny day.  By the time I had finished, the sun was down, and this was the view from the BARC.

UnPhotoshopped iPhone picture of the sunset


A quick recap

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.

Slump block on the right, intact strata on the left. Notice the Visqueen on both sides.

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.

Marine mammal oil feature.
Marine mammal oil feature.

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.

Side view of overhanging block of marine mammal oil. Note crack on the left.

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.

Panorama of the site after the initial covering.

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.

Help wanted!

Crew members wanted

Nuvuk Archaeology Project

Walakpa Archaeological Salvage Project

WALRUS – Walrus Adaptability and Long-term Responses; Using multi-proxy data to project Sustainability


We are seeking students (high school or college) to work in the archaeological laboratory on artifacts as part of several NSF-funded research projects. The lab crew will be working on processing artifacts excavated at Nuvuk, Walakpa and other North Slope sites.

This will involve cleaning (gently), sorting, marking, cataloging and preparing some items for transfer to a long-term repository. We will also be going through and sorting some frozen organic samples from an earlier project in Barrow that have been sent back from New York State.

We also will be attempting to find walrus bones in these collections for analysis at UAF. There is a possibility for student travel in connection with that project.

You do not need any prior experience; we can train you. Many archaeology crew members start as high school students. Once you learn how to do the work, scheduling can be very flexible. If you have skills in drawing, photography, or data entry, we can really use your help as well! Starting wages will depend on experience and qualifications.

To apply, send a resume and cover letter to Anne Jensen, as soon as possible.  You can use the contact form below for questions.

Ramping up in the lab

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.



The smell of old seal oil in the afternoon…

… can be a bit overpowering.  I chose one of the bags of frozen samples from Utiqiaġvik to thaw out for the lab tour after the Saturday Schoolyard talk.

The talk went well, with a very large turn out.  Afterwards, a fair number of them came by the lab for a tour.  And then I opened the bag.  It was from Mound 8, and was described as containing fish bones and perhaps artifacts embedded in seal oil.

Provenience tag from the bag.
Provenience tag from the bag.

It was rather smelly to say the least.  The oil made up most of the matrix, with a consistency like cold greasy peanut butter.  Not only that, the most obvious contents were wood chips and hair, which weren’t too exciting.  Most folks didn’t feel like hanging around too long.  Since it was my birthday & there was a party at my house, I didn’t finish the bag.

Today I got back to work on it for an hour or so.  It still smelled, I guess, but I think the smell of old seal oil is sort of nice.  It’s the smell of archaeological sites, and they are places I like to be.  The couple of extra days had let the oil warm up and it was a little easier to work with.

Contents of the bag.
Contents of the bag.

I found a number of interesting things, including a fish vertebra, some fish scales, a number of hairs, some bone fragments, and of course, wood chips.  When I was labeling the bags, I realized it had been excavated by none other than Kevin Smith, now at the Haffenreffer, exactly 32 years and 3 months ago.

Fish vertebra
Fish vertebra
Bone fragments

Tomorrow I’ll do some more.

A day of taking pictures

This Saturday, I’m giving a Saturday Schoolyard talk about the Walakpa salvage project.  That means I need a lot of pictures.  So I spent the last couple of days in the lab taking pictures of the artifacts from we recovered.

Just a few of the results:

Rim sherd
Rim sherd
Fragments of arrowheads.
Fragments of arrowheads.
Very thin ivory harpoon head.  Note the shadow of the finger showing through the artifact.
Very thin ivory harpoon head. Note the shadow of the finger showing through the artifact.

Some media attention, and why it can be a double-deged sword

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.

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A bit of interior decoration

We’ve added a couple of new student hire for the summer, but still have room for one or two more, so if you are interested, get in touch ASAP!

With the larger crew, we have been working on getting some of the Pingusugruk collection sorted and in proper archival boxes.  We need to move the container it was in, so we’d have to move the boxes anyway, and this way we can not only record which bag is in which numbered box, but also sort the “Tamis” bags, which are the 25% random sample drawn at time of excavation from the rest, to make future analysis easier, and find the rest of the bags from the column sample that Rebecca Connor & Angelique Neffe started on, so I can finish that analysis.  Most of this work is being done by our adult volunteers.

The students worked on this a little, mostly to get it set up so the volunteers can work easily, and also to get more room on the lab benches, so that they can work on the Nuvuk materials with no chance of things getting mixed up.  In the process, we had a number of animal bones that were collected on the beach or tundra and donated to us.  Some of them have been labeled as to species and element, and are being used to help with the preliminary sort and cataloging of the materials from Nuvuk Locus 6 midden.

There were a few things which were sort of superfluous, like a caribou skull.  The students really wanted to use it as a decoration, so with a little glue to keep the teeth in, it was suspended outside the door (using peel-off hangers of course to avoid damaging the wall.

The caribou skull
The caribou skull

Apparently, they found something else they felt was not necessary to include in the comparative collection, either because we haven’t found any (we haven’t) or because they figure everyone already knows what it is.  The next day, this is what the door looked like.

A addition to the decor
A addition to the decor
The new addition is a walrus baculum, often known as an oosik.  I doubt some of the visiting scientists know what they are looking at :-).

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A visit from the media

The important but not overly exciting routine of proposal preparation & writing on my part, and cataloging on Coby’s part was broken on Friday.  KTUU TV, the Anchorage NBS affiliate, sent a crew to Barrow for a few days.  They were covering the football team, and wanted to get some practice footage, but that left them with lots of free time, so they had to get as many other stories as possible, and they decided to go for science stories.

I know they did an interview with George Divoky, who had just made it in off Cooper Island (the weather has been really awful–not boating weather at all).  They also shot some footage about Nuvuk and coastal erosion.

First they stopped into my lab for an hour or so.  They shot a fair bit of footage of Coby Hatcher (who is going to HS on-line and therefore was working in the lab when they were there) doing various things one does in an archaeology lab, including re-bagging cataloged artifacts and entering storage locations for artifacts in the catalog database so they can be found again.

Coby updating storage locations in the catalog

With a big collection, this is pretty important, since otherwise it can be very hard to retrieve things.  It actually came up because I was trying to find the bird bone from the Ipiutaq levels that had been used to make needle blanks.  A number of folks think it looks like it is an albatross bone, which is interesting if true, since there aren’t many albatross around here.  One of them is involved in a project which is doing ancient DNA work, and offered to run some of this bone to see if it really is albatross.  There was no storage location in the catalog, so we had to look a bit.  We found it and I’ll mail it out, and Coby put updates in the catalog.

Then they shot some footage of me showing some of the artifacts, and some of me doing an interview about the project and what one can learn through archaeology.  That lead into what gets lots when sites are lost to coastal erosion and/or warming and permafrost thawing.

Dan Carpenter shooting video. He really liked this fox skull.
Dan Carpenter, KTUU, interviewing me in the lab. Photo by Coby Hatcher.

After that, they headed off to do something else.  In the late afternoon, we headed out to Point Barrow for them to get some shots of the site and, as it turned out, coastal erosion in action.  That’s a story in itself, so that will be the next post.