Plenty of fish

Excavation of the hearth & surroundings continued.  When we first found fish bones we were pretty excited.   We just keep finding more in and near the hearth and I must admit the thrill is rapidly fading 🙂 . We’re finding some other bone too, not all of which has been burnt past the point of recognition.

The egg was successfully extracted and packaged, and has made it back to the lab, I hope more or less intact.  We shall see when we start processing things.  If we can’t figure out what it was, Dennis said they’ll take a crack at IDing it through DNA.

Two neat finds

We started investigating the last GPR hit and came down on a jumble of wood.  The excavators were not optimistic, but I kept pushing to go a little further.  Eventually, this appeared:

Feature detected with GPR

The feature (I’m not calling it a burial until there is evidence of human remains) was jumbled because at some time after it was constructed, someone dug a hole in the middle of it.  And right beside where the hole had punched into the feature was this:

Antler arrowpoint

The hole just missed it.

The DWF (Ipiutak) levels had their own surprises.  We found a good bit of fish bone, some lithics (nothing diagnostic) and a lot of broken bone, but the really cool thing, which I found on the edge of the hearth, was a flattened but apparently complete egg!

The remains of the egg

Lab and logistics–Pt. 1

The past couple of weeks have been really hectic.  The local students have been working in the lab, and I’ve been dealing with logistics non-stop.

We’re at the point where we could go through the bags from the shovel test pits.  In the early days of archaeology, only artifacts were collected, and sometimes only the unbroken ones, at that.  The details of their provenience were often recorded in very broad term.  As the discipline progressed, new methods kept developing, and it became clear that many of the things that had been discarded could have yielded information, had they only been collected.  The pendulum swung toward keeping everything, including large volumes of samples, on the principle that someday methods would catch up, and then the information could be recovered.  This is the same reason that practice moved toward only excavating part of a site, or even of a feature.

Now, however, it is becoming clear that museums cannot expand indefinitely, and that not everything can be kept.  In fact, some places are deaccessioning items.  Many places are being much more selective in what they will accept.  There is a real storage space crunch in Barrow (particularly for climate controlled storage) so we need to be judicious about what is retained for the future.

At the same time, we are excavating with crews which include beginning excavators, in sometimes unpleasant weather.  The only good way to make sure that important data (or artifacts) don’t get left in the field is to have people collect things even if they are not sure they are artifacts.   And they do.

When the bags are gone through and the contents cleaned, obvious mistakes are discarded at that point.  That still leaves an enormous volume of material.  There simply isn’t place for it all, so some decisions have to be made in how to deal with it.  The most rational approach is to discard the items with the least information potential first.

The Point Barrow spit has been used by people and animals for the entire period of its existence.  Faunal remains have been dropped and scattered by humans and animals alike.  Artifacts have been dropped and lost and refuse has been tossed.  That’s true of most sites, but the  post-depositional processes acting at Nuvuk are a bit different.

At the majority of sites, the site is built up like making a layer cake.  The bottom layer goes on the plate first, then a layer of frosting, then another layer of cake, and so forth.  The oldest layer is on the bottom, and the newest on top.  If you put a piece of candy on the cake and push it down into the bottom layer, there are traces of that, so that it is possible to figure out that it was the last thing added.

At Nuvuk, on the other hand, the loose gravel matrix means that something can be dropped on the surface, stepped on twice and be 10 cm under the surface, covered with apparently undisturbed gravel, in 15 minutes.  Digging can bring older items to the surface, as can frost heaving and the action of tires.  In other words, there is no way to tell what was deposited before what.  One can get relative dates for artifacts based on their style or even patent dates for trade items, but that doesn’t tell you anything about when they were deposited at the site.  Faunal remains are even worse.  There is no way to date them (C14 dates at $900/bone aren’t likely to happen) and since polar bears hunt the same animals as the Nuvukmuit (people of Nuvuk) did, and drop bones on site, we can’t even be sure the bones were introduced by humans.  The only exceptions are areas where there was a sufficient amount of organic matter to support plant growth and soil development.  These include the graves and middens (and the sod houses before they eroded away).

This difference was taken into account when we developed the protocols for shovel test pits.  The excavators collected the artifacts and faunal material by natural levels.  In most cases, the entire STP was in the same loose gravel level.  This means that the materials from those STPs have much less information potential that the materials from the areas of the site with some soil development and stratigraphy.  Any research questions that could be addressed with this material can also be addressed with material with better stratigraphic control, at far less cost and with more confidence in the results.  That makes them an ideal place to start when trying to reduce the volume of the collections to be retained for the long-term.

We have been digging over 2000 STPs each season (and really hope the GPR will reduce that a lot).  Some of them had nothing in them, but most had at least a few animal bones and artifacts.  So we are working with the bags from STPs where there had been only an undifferentiated gravel level.  Any particularly interesting or unique artifacts are being saved (although they are few and far between, most having been found during excavation).  Recent trash (cigarette butts, juice boxes, etc), recent nails & metals straps, cloth gloves and the like are recorded and lab discarded.  Items with maker’s marks or other markings that might allow identification and/or dating are being retained for further analysis, and others are being sorted, counted and recorded prior to lab discard.  So far there seems to be a good collection of Pabst Blue Ribbon cans from the pull-tab era.  We are also retaining items (gears, lock sets, etc) which look as if they might be further identified with the right documentation for additional analysis.  The faunal material is being sorted.  Modified items are being retained for further analysis, identifiable elements are being recorded and lab discarded (with particularly good examples being saved for a teaching collection), and unidentifiable fragments are being counted and lab discarded.  This is good practice for the students, and since the STP material isn’t well-suited for future research (due to the issues mentioned above), overall this is a positive step.

Occam’s Razor is going to be coming in handy

The fun with radiocarbon dates continues.  I did manage to get a proposal off to a client, make some preparations for the summer field season and take care of the usual admin sorts of things.  Otherwise, I was working on the C14 dates.

It was slow going, in part because I read French much more slowly than I do English, and I was working my way through the Blumer compendium of St. Lawrence dates, which requires looking in at least 3 places to figure out how to evaluate the dates.  In some cases, one also has to go to other books to look at what the original excavator recorded (or didn’t).  Thank goodness for the American Museum of Natural History and their very nice downloadable PDFs (although the link seems troubled at the moment) of their Anthropological Papers.  I had a couple of them on my hard drive, which saved me a trip to get the actual books.

Anyway, St. Lawrence is going to be quite a mess.  There are a lot of whale and walrus dates, and Dumond  has calculated a correction for them by paired dating with terrestrial plants.  The only problem is that the whales in St. Lawrence are the same stock as the whales they catch here, and whalebone C14 doesn’t turn over very fast (a couple of decades at least) so they average the ∂C13 over that period.  That means that the correction factor for those whales should be the same anywhere in their range.  We’ve worked on it here for the Nuvuk graves, and the correction factor that works is much smaller.  I’m guessing walrus ingest relatively huge amounts of old carbon and skewed the calculations…

There was a very nice evening sky on the way home.

Sky from NARL. It was actually brighter, but this exposure shows the colors best.

18th Arctic Conference–Part 5 (Day 2-PM)

At last!  After a fine lunch, we reassembled in Dalton for the afternoon session.  We moved from Alaska to the North Atlantic, and a variety of Norse sites.  Tom McGovern kicked it off with an overview of what had been accomplished during the most recent IPY.  Much of this is due to the work of various NABO members.  He talked about some really neat school outreach programs, including one issuing GPS and camera to students & teachers to record archaeology and in the case of Iceland, place names.  He also highlighted a very interesting initiative to develop

Konrad Smiarowski talked about zooarchaeology associated with the Vatnahverfi Project, part of the Norse Eastern Settlement, Greenland.  The project involved survey and excavation (following NABO common protocols, which make for great inter-site inter-comparability).  He was looking at how the Norse immigrants adapted to a new environment with new (to them) resources.  He had evidence for the adoption of seal hunting, which the Norse seem not to have done elsewhere, despite the presence of seals, as well as hunting of walrus for ivory and birding.  Bones of harp and hooded seals, both of which are migratory, show up even at more inland sites, so it looks like either people are coming to the outer coast to hunt or the seals are being traded inland.  It looks like they were net or drive hunting.  Things seem to have been going on well, but increasing amounts of ice seem to have changed things, driving people to intensify sealing at the same time as it was affecting the local seal populations.  Things ended badly, as we know.

Ramona Harrison gave an interesting paper on the farm Gásir and its hinterlands, including various types of landscape (hayfields, pastures, etc).  She is working on the zooarchaeology as part of a long-term human eco-dynamics in Eyjafjörður, Northeast Iceland.  Unfortunately, my notes on this appear not to have been saved, so I won’t go into more detail, so as not to mis-report anything Ramona said, but it was quite interesting, and reports should be on the NABO website soon, if they’re not there now.

The final paper was given by Seth Brewington on work in the Faroes, particularly at Undir Junkarinsflotti.  It was abandoned in the 1300s due to repeated sand blows, which were a problem at that time in a number of places on the eastern side of the North Atlantic.  The paper dealt with the zooarchaeology, which is quite unique as bone preservation generally seems to be bad in the Faroes, and the idea of keeping bone is still relatively new.  The inhabitants seem to have been eating lots of birds (mostly puffins), even in comparison to other Norse sites, where the bird consumption seems to drop after the earliest settlement period. 

18th Arctic conference–Part 4 (Day 2-AM)

This penultimate chapter is a bit belated, to say the least, due to holidays, much travel and associated presentations, and proposal preparation.  However, there were some very interesting papers on the final day as well, and I decided I needed to get this written before yet another conference happened.  And I needed a break from final tweaking of the PowerPoint for said conference.

The first paper was by Molly Odell, on economic change at  Mitksqaaq Angayuk between 3400-100BP.  The site, on Kodiak, seems to have had discontinuous occupations from Early Katchemak to the Russian occupation.  Molly focused on the fauna from a midden associated with an Alutiiq house.  The house seemed to have been occupied primarily by men, based on the artifacts.  The midden showed a change from a pre-contact mixed fishery (primarily cod but with significant amounts of salmon and small amounts of other locally available fish) to a fishery focused almost entirely on cod in the historic period.  Molly interprets this as a shift from a winter settlement to a cod-fishing camp, presumably staffed by men.

Jennifer Raff gave a paper on mitochondrial aDNA (ancient DNA) from the Lower Alaska Peninsula & Eastern Aleutians.  This is interesting, as there are disagreements about how/when various cultures in that area appeared, and whether or not they represent in situ (in place) developments or population replacements.  This work may help settle some of those questions.  Not to spoil any surprises, as this paper is being published, but both haplotypes A & D are well represented, and there is B from one site!

Rick Knecht, a fellow Bryn Mawr College PhD, gave a “just out of the field” talk about excavations at Nunalleq, a Yup’ik site in the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta.  The Yup’ik culture is quite well-known ethnographically, but almost no archaeology has been done in the area.  Nunalleq, for which there is a date of 1300BP (not sure if that’s calibrated or what it’s on or associated with) has extraordinary organic preservation at the moment, but is suffering erosion, which is accelerating due to permafrost melting and sea level rise.  The local community actually contacted the archaeologists in concern.  The 2010 season excavated a house, with lots of organic artifacts (rye grass matting, for example) present on the floor.  They think it might have been a men’s house, which are known for the Yup’ik from the ethnographic record, based on the low numbers of women’s artifacts recovered.  There was a burnt side room, with a large number of arrowheads present, which is possibly a result of conflict.  More work is planned.

Chistyann Darwent followed with a report on the 2010 work at Cape Espenberg, a beach ridge complex which is located near Kotzebue in the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve.  This project has been doing survey there for a couple of years and has surveyed and mapped extensively, especially the more recent periods.  They have actually been able to excavate several houses (one on each of the 3 Thule-age ridges) to a considerable extent.  One thing they discovered was that the surface mapping did not necessarily give a good picture of what was under the ground in terms of houses, side rooms and so forth.  One of the houses seems to have burned, although why is not yet clear.  They excavated an outdoor ceramic manufacturing area (inadvertently–it looked like part of the house from the surface).  The houses on the oldest and middle Thule ridges had Thule 2 harpoon heads associated with them, suggesting that they were fairly early.  The also found a copper eyed needle, slat armor.  The tunnel floor was lined with baleen.  The youngest house was of a type that was familiar to the project’s elder consultant, who had been in the US Army during the Korean War, since he’d grown up in a similar house.  It had lots of evidence for fishing.  The dates were a bit later than prior testing had led them to expect, the oldest around 1260-1400BP, the middle 1450-1650BP.

Justin Tackney gave a paper on mDNA (mitochondrial DNA) from Nuvuk, as well as presenting the new direct dates that Joan Coltrane has for the human remains. The results show a number of haplogroups hypothesized to be founders to modern Inuit populations all in one area, which is new.  In general, this supports a Thule expansion from North Alaska.

I got the slot before lunch, and gave a paper looking at the material culture of modern Iñupiat whaling.  I am using this as a way to approach what sort of evidence might be expected in archaeological sites of whalers, and where that evidence might be found.  Essentially, the modern case has a number of artifacts that are needed for whaling and nothing else, most of which have pre-contact equivalents.  The interesting thing is that they are generally not stored in the house, which implies that excavations focused on houses may not be able to address presence/absence whaling too well.

A mystery tooth

One of the fun parts of the job is that people find all sorts of things around Barrow.  Often, they show them to me, or at least send me pictures.  In a lot of cases I can ID them, but I’m not expert on extinct fauna, and the printed/online resources available are not as good as those for modern critters.

I usually send pictures to some folks at UAF (University of Alaska Fairbanks), since they actually have a pretty good collection.  Unfortunately their current curator of mammals flatly denies any knowledge (!) of extinct animals, and doesn’t seem inclined to rural residents of the state that pays his salary by taking a peek in the collections to try to make an ID.  So I’m broadening the search.

This particular tooth was given to the current owner.  Matu believes it was found in a gravel operation near Barrow, AK.  He’s really anxious to know what it is.  If you have any ideas what it might be from, please let me know.  If you have any colleagues who might be able to ID it, we’d appreciate it if you’d give them the URL for this post and ask them to take a look if they have time.

The following pictures aren’t great.  I didn’t have a tripod or photo stand, or decent lighting.  If you think you know what it might be, but need better pictures (not hard to imagine) or a particular angle, let me know and I’ll see if I can have him bring it to the lab for a better-lit portrait.

Mystery tooth from near Barrow, AK.
Root of mystery tooth.
Close-up of mystery tooth. Any comments on traces at photo center?

Mysterious sea Creatures

One of the things we collected a lot of from the strand lines was a variety of sea creatures.  There are a lot of pieces of what we thought (in the field) was gut, which is a useful raw material.  Now that we’ve gotten them into the lab, we think most of it is some sort of marine worms.  There are also a variety of other small marine creatures (plants or invertebrates–they have lost their orignal colors) and mollusks.

Marine worm? from 300-400 AD
Another sort of sea creature
Some sort of seaweed?
Maybe some type of sponge-like creature?

Obviously, I know a lot more about mammal bones & teeth than these things.  So we’ve sorted out a bunch, and Claire will take a couple of each type to Fairbanks, along with the shells. With any luck, we can get some IDs.  If we’re really lucky, the species in question will turn out to have fairly narrow habitat requirements, and we’ll know something about what the ocean was like near Barrow when the big storm happened between 300 & 400 AD.

If you happen to recognize any of these, please let me know what you think they are.  If you know anyone who might be interested in these creatures, send them my way.  The “worms” are very well-preserved, and still flexible.  It occurs to me that it might be possible to extract DNA from them (and maybe some of the other creatures as well), which would be a pretty rare opportunity.

A couple of needles (maybe…)

The processing of the large bulk samples is proceeding.  It’s slow going, but we are reducing the overall volume.  We have found a few things that are noteworthy.

Claire has found some well-preserved wood that she was able to take samples of for species identification and possible tree-ring dating.

We also found one piece of coal with one flat, highly polished side.  The rest of it looks like it broke naturally and got smoothed by being rolled in the water, but the one side looks different.  It’s a maybe, but a pretty good one, although we’ll probably never know what it was or was going to be…

There are also a variety of marine worms, shells and what we think are marine plants.  I just spoke to a friend of mine, “retired” biologist, Dr. Dave Norton, who used to live in Barrow and is fairly familiar with the contents of modern strand lines here.  Claire is going to take the oddities we are sorting out down to Fairbanks (where he lives) tomorrow night, and he will look at the specimens and try to connect with the appropriate curators at the UAF Museum of the North.  I’m going to Fairbanks (for shotgun refresher qualifications for a non-archaeology project I manage for Sandia National Labs) the week after next, and will go visiting the curators with him, in hopes of getting good IDs.