We made it back into town just over two weeks ago. The field season went well, despite a few challenges from sea ice, snow drifts on the beach and general cold weather. There was a huge amount of catching up to do (nearly 4000 emails), three projects which needed various forms filed, an MOA which had to be done for this project, some radiocarbon calibrations to write up for another project, lots of equipment which needed to be cleaned, dried, put away or returned, and many artifacts and samples which needed processing. Although I had lots of help, I’ve been working 16 hour days since before we went into the field, and something had to give.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have good connectivity in the field, so the only updates I could send were from my deLorme InReach. At 160 characters per message, it really isn’t up to blog posts. That means I’m sort of going to have to do some catch-up posts. I head to Deering for a monitoring project on Saturday, and it’s not clear how good the connectivity will be there either, so there may be another gap.
We’re in need of a bit of scrap lumber (1x2s and 2x4s), to complete construction of a water screening device. Alas, Barrow no longer has a lumberyard, so it is a real problem when it turns out you need a bit more lumber. If anyone has some excess lumber they would be willing to contribute to the Walakpa salvage effort, please let me know.
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.
There are a lot of things that go into a successful project. We’ve been inventorying field gear and project supplies, getting emergency contact forms filled out, finalizing safety protocols and on and on. Kaare Erickson is up from Anchorage for a week or so to help get the gear organized for the Walakpa season, plus another project we’re doing right after that. He’s heading back down next weekend and will do some serious shopping (& screen building) before he comes back up for the field season.
Today we decided to try to get down to Walakpa to see how the site was. Some folks have made it down (including someone in a truck, supposedly. Sean Gunnells, who worked at Walakpa in 2013 came along, and we headed down on ATVs. Alas, yesterday’s snow was not helpful, and the Honda kept bogging down, since it had less ground clearance than the Polarises. We kept having to go up on the tundra, which made for slow riding. We made it to Hollywood, which was probably about nine miles, or a little over halfway there, before we decided that the game wasn’t worth the candle. It would have taken all day, and we had lots of other things to get done. It’s supposed to be warm (in the 40s) for several days, so we hope that a lot of the snow will melt and make for easier traveling.
While we were on the beach, we looked for tracks. We didn’t see any, even near a couple of areas where animals had been butchered. All we saw was an old walrus carcass that must have been dragged up the beach by a bear, but no tracks around it.
However, we had packed lunches, so we went ahead and ate on the beach. A little ring seal popped up in the shore lead and looked at us.
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.
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.
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.