Talking about Climate Change and Threats to Heritage

I spent most of the day talking about climate change threats to cultural heritage and archaeological resources.  I started off at a fairly conventional session about archaeology at various sites in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, which had a number of interesting papers, many based on analysis of well-preserved faunal remains.

I then went on to the first formal meeting of the newest SAA committee, on Climate Change Strategies and Archaeological Response (CCSAR).  Dan Sandweiss, who is the SAA board liaison, as well as being one of the earlier people to call attention to the importance of archaeological sites as archives of paleoenvironmental data, as well as the obvious archaeological data.  It seems to be a really great group of people,working in a lot of different places, all of which are having some climate issues.  Most of them are interested not only in saving data, but in what that data can tell us about past climates, and about how people adapted to changes in them.  As one person said, “We really don’t have much data about the Archaic, the last time people lived sustainably in North America.”  This may be a bit of an exaggeration, especially for Alaska, but basically the idea is correct.

After that, I had to go to an appointment in the book room.  We will see what comes of that in due time.

Then there was another interesting session on Heritage Tools for Tackling Climate Change.  This included a variety of talks on ways people are dealing with the effects of climate change.  One had to do with melting ice patches in Glacier National Park, and how the Park Service had dealt with material coming out, in consultation with the local Native American community, as well as studies they were doing so they could be proactive.  Another paper included information on the California Cultural Resource Management (CRM) community’s efforts to get public lands on the coast surveyed completely.

There was some discussion about whether the US ban on revealing any site location data helps or hurts.  Most other countries will reveal that data, although they may wait until very valuable materials have been properly excavated in some cases.  They have found that it decreases looting, if anything.  It also helps people avoid inadvertent damage that happens when people don’t know a site is there, and lets them report on changes in site conditions. So instead of a few archaeologists, lots of people can keep an eye on the sites.  Here they can’t do that.  I suspect, as do many others, that the people who are serious looters already know where the sites are, and have a pretty good idea where to prospect for more.  On the other hand, when the US government shut down for a couple of weeks in 2013, looting exploded in the National Parks.

Tomorrow morning the session I organized on Global Change Threats to the Archaeological and Paleoecological Record (not snappy, but lots of buzzwords for search engines) happens.

Arctic Observing Open Science Meeting

I spent most of the week in Seattle at the Arctic Observing Open Science meeting.  Ben Fitzhugh and I were the point persons for the broader GHEA/IHOPE Emerging Knowledge Hub on Global Environmental Change Threats to Heritage and Long Term Observing Networks of the Past.  This is a long and fancy way of talking about the threats that sea level rise, ice retreat, and permafrost warming pose for archaeological sites in the North.  Since this was not an archaeological meeting, most of the folks were either natural scientists or resource managers.  We focused on the kind of data that archaeological sites contain that are more than relevant to answering the kinds of questions they are asking, while pointing out that the data is vanishing quickly.  The library is on fire!

Waves eat at the Utqiaġvik bluffs.
Waves eat at the Utqiaġvik bluffs.

Ben and I each were the lead on a talk (both massively multi-authored), and we also did a poster, with a similarly large number of contributors.  Ben’s talk was in the Marine Ecosystems session.  It seemed like it interested the audience, which was primarily oceanographers, and related agency and funding folks.

Mine was in the Human Dimensions session, since the Coastal Processes session we had aimed for apparently didn’t get enough papers.  I followed a paper on frozen heritage (primarily ice patches and the preliminary stages of development of site evaluation schema) by Martin Callanan and Shelby Anderson, so the issues were thoroughly driven home.  The audience included a number of natural scientists (!), and the discussions included the relevance of archaeology to both other fields of research and to developing toolkits for sustainability.

Our hope is we woke some of our colleagues up to both the potential of archaeological sites to provide data, and the need to find a way to get that data that doesn’t rely entirely on Arctic Social Science funding.

My talk and the poster are up on both my and ResearchGate pages, if you would like to see them.

Looks like it’s a hearth

We were a small crew today since the high school students weren’t working, so we concentrated on the Ipiutak area. It was fairly tricky to excavate, since there is unconsolidated gravel under the Wood/sand/gravel layer that covers the Ipiutak surface, and a large pile of unconsolidated gravel uphill from the features.  Plus the hearth ash is covered with a mushy skin of peat, and both the hearth surface and the peat undulate.  Despite that, we recovered 2 fin rays, some burnt bone, a pot-lidded flake (probably rhyolite), a grey chert flake, and a black biface fragment from the hearth.  We also got some large ungulate (species in dispute at the moment–probably caribou) bone, and a small fragment of decorated ivory, plus several interesting pieces of wood, which appear to be worked.

It was quite cold.  Even though we had a windbreak, the levels are just thawing, and the ground is cold and wet.  My hands are still stiff, so more will have to wait until tomorrow.

Much gravel is moved

We spent most of the day with shovel testing, shooting in pits and moving gravel.  The gravel moving was in aid of getting a better look at the worked wood protruding from the erosion face at what appears to be the Ipiutak level.  So far, there seems to have been a fire and a lot of ash in association with one of the wood features, and it’s not clear if it was a hearth or a structure that burned accidentally.  Opening it up a bit more would help, but it is under a lot of gravel.

Structural timbers with possible hearth in Ipiutak level

The crew did yeoman work, and much gravel was moved, so we can get a look tomorrow.  There is actually a frozen layer under where most of them are standing, which will have thawed by tomorrow if we are lucky.

Flying gravel! L to R: Adam, Trace, Laura, Candace, Dennis, Tom

Actual incremental progress on several fronts!

Now that the storms have passed for the moment, and I can once again get to the office, I’ve actually gotten a few things done.  I managed to take the few comments on the mission statements for the GHEA working groups and finalize them.  That done, I set up, not one, but two (!), working groups.  The first is focused on coastal erosion, and the second on global change effects on the archaeological and paleoecological records.   They are now open for members (a few have already joined).

Monday’s time-sheet approvals were particularly onerous, because a change of user ID in the time-sheet system didn’t work quite right, and not only detached users from approvers until they logged in again on Monday, it also rescinded submitted and approved time-sheets from last week which were done before the update!  Much confusion and a royal pain for us and for the IT/accounting folks, I can assure you.  But we persevered and everyone should get paid on time!  There were a few other accounting and proposal related details to deal with today, but they’re pretty well in hand, and I just need a few more numbers to get the proposal out the door.

That done, I moved on to drafting a summary for newsletters (several paragraphs) of the Polar Archaeological Network meeting in Tromsø, which somewhat coincidentally (since I am the only overlap between the two groups at the moment) was all about global change and threats to the Polar archaeological and paleoecological records.  That’s been circulated and I’ve made several revisions based on comments.  I’ve gotten one more set from Maribeth Murray at UAF, which actually suggests two versions, one for social science audiences and one speaking more to the paleoecology/global change folks, so I should have that ready for final circulation to the attendees tomorrow, and then it should be ready to go to out.  Maribeth and I (and the other meeting attendees) are also doing a poster at the Alaska Anthropological Association annual meeting in Fairbanks next week.  PAN had a preliminary poster, which I am majorly rewriting and putting Alaska-specific images on (since this version is for an Alaska meeting).  I’ve got to get that finished, circulated, and down to Maribeth in Fairbanks so she can get it printed up (since large-format printers are almost as scarce as hen’s teeth in Barrow).

Also needing finishing and polishing is my paper/PowerPoint for the meeting.  I am in a session in honor of Ernest S. “Tiger” Burch Jr., one of the most renowned ethnologists who ever worked in the North, who passed away unexpectedly last September.  He was a brilliant and meticulous researcher, widely admired among Iñupiaq people, particularly those of Kivalina, where he and his wife lived for some time, and an all-around good person.  I was proud to have him as a friend, as was my husband, Glenn Sheehan, and it’s an honor to be asked to be in this session.

I had somehow lost track of when the meeting was, and had rather a jolt today when I opened an email about a side meeting, which mentioned the attached agenda for next week’s meeting!  A mad dash to make travel plans ensued, so I now have a room, a car, a plane ticket and am registered for the meeting.  All told–1.5 hours.  Practice makes perfect (or at least faster).

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.

Taking the temperature of permafrost and archaeology

Today the Saturday Schoolyard talk was about warming permafrost.  The speaker was Dr. Vladimir Romanovsky, head of the Permafrost Laboratory at the Geophysical Institute at UAF.  He gave a really good talk, explaining what permafrost is (permanently frozen ground, basically), why it matters if it melts, and how permafrost researchers go about taking its temperature (with thermistor (temperature sensor) strings down boreholes, mostly).  He then went on to show how permafrost temperatures had changed through time as the atmospheric temperature had changed.

After that, he moved to predictive modeling based on climatic models.  Using even a fairly middle-of-the-road climate model, it doesn’t look too good for permafrost in Alaska by the end of the century.  He also showed active layer (the soil layer at the top that freezes and thaws every year) modeling done on a similar basis some years ago, and pointed out that over the 10 years since the model was run it had been spot on in its predictions.  The active layer is clearly going to be a lot deeper if the predictions hold.

This is not good news for Arctic archaeology.  Compared to most of the rest of the world, where archaeologists are left to puzzle out what people were doing from a few stone tools, waste flakes and potsherds, we get really good organic preservation here, which makes it possible to look at questions that can’t be addressed elsewhere for lack of relevant data.  The reason the preservation is so good is in large part permafrost, and permanently frozen sites.  Last week, when Claire was here, we were getting a lot of well-preserved 1600-1700 year old marine invertebrates from the samples.  They exist because the layer was frozen for most, if not all, of that time.

I’m been thinking a lot about site destruction, and how to determine which areas are at highest risk, in order to prioritize field efforts.  Perhaps because coastal erosion is the big and immediate threat at Nuvuk (and all the other coastal sites I’ve worked at except for Ipuitak, where the immediate threat was the seawall being built to prevent coastal erosion), I’ve tended to focus on that, as well as eroding river banks for sites along rivers.  The melting of exposed ice wedges, which then leads to collapse of the overlying ground is also something I’ve been concerned about.  And these are major threats, which can tumble entire houses upside down on the beach for the waves to destroy.

Undercutting by waves caused the gravel to slump from underneath this grave at Nuvuk.
Storm-driven surf tears into the mound at Ukkuqsi in Barrow.
Tunnel remnants after the storm. The house was to the left, where only thin air can be seen.
Ice wedge in bluffs near Barrow. They can be much larger.
Slump block on beach at Barrow after a storm.
Slumps from thawing ground along a Colville River cut bank.
A Colville River cut bank from the air. Notice the earlier slump that has stabilized and even grown over, and the fresh cut at the bottom from the river's current.

I hadn’t thought much at all about the risks to Arctic archaeology from a significant deepening of the active layer, which will mean that artifacts and ecofacts (animal bones, insects, etc.) will freeze and thaw every year (which is hard on things to begin with, often causing rocks and bones to split) and while they are thawed, they will be decaying.  Even now, really old sites don’t have much organic preservation.  Even sites that are in no danger of eroding are threatened with the gradual invisible loss of a great deal of the information they now contain.

Obviously, if we are going to develop a “threat matrix” for Arctic archaeological sites, this has to be part of it.  I talked to Vlad a bit after the talk, and he thought he had students who could be put to work on this problem, perhaps by combining what we know about site locations in Alaska (by no means a complete listing) and the existing models for permafrost change.  He also said that one could do active layer modeling for a specific site with a year’s worth of soil and air temperatures, so that’s something we definitely need to get started on.

Piles of Wood

One of the great things about doing archaeology in the Arctic is that the preservation can be spectacular.  Artifacts often froze the winter after they were abandoned, and only thawed when they were excavated.  This means we get to find a lot of the bone, wood ivory and leather items that were undoubtedly part of most precontact people’s tool kits.  We don’t have to guess at what people were using or extrapolate from a few stone tools that did manage to be preserved; we can see it firsthand.

This is not always an unmixed blessing.  Arctic archaeology  sometimes suffers from an embarrassment of riches.

Boxes with wood from the Driftwood Feature (DWF).

In the past, archaeologists generally only saved the artifacts from a site.  Animal bones and soil were pretty much ignored, or at best documented in the field (there are a lot of excavated houses in the Arctic where the animal bones are still piled at the edge of the excavation where they were left decades ago).  As archaeological science advanced (radiocarbon dating began about 60 years ago) and people began to do more things with faunal (animal) remains and soil samples, people began to collect a lot more, and to bring it back to museums to save, on the assumption that one day someone would be able to do something informative with it.  The idea is still a good one in theory, but it is bumping up against various realities.  For one thing, in most areas these sorts of things require storage in climate controlled conditions or they will deteriorate and become useless.  They are often quite bulky compared to just the artifacts.  Most museums simply don’t have any place to put all this stuff!  Some of the better-funded places, like the Smithsonian Institution, have built large off-site storage facilities in areas where real estate is a bit less expensive, just to keep all this stuff.  But such places require operational funds and new staff, and that costs money too.  Most places can’t really afford that.  Some institutions have started charging for putting collections there, but there are problems with that as well.

So part of the new reality for archaeology is that we can’t keep everything.  The question is how to decide what to keep and what not to keep.  In general, the artifacts are kept.  No problem there.  The issue is how to deal with the other things.

It’s even more complicated for the Nuvuk project.  We have had several areas where massive amounts of organic material, with some artifacts and faunal remains mixed in, were encountered.  While one might normally choose to excavate this all in the field, in a couple of cases the areas were right at the erosion face, and could literally have vanished overnight.  Combine that with a very cold field situation, where mild hypothermia can dull excavators’ thought processes, it didn’t seem like that was the best plan, since it risked data in a variety of ways.  I decided to take tightly-provenienced (with very accurate information on where they were from) bulk samples, which can then be processed in the lab, where it is warm and we have good lighting, magnifying lenses and water to wash the dirt and gravel off so we can get a good look at everything.  If excavators recognize an artifact in the field, it gets recorded there, but the idea is that we’ll find the less obvious ones in the lab.

Contents of one bucket shot laid out on a tray.
A closer look

One of the areas with a massive amount of organic material was what we called the Driftwood Feature.  This level is about 1 meter (39 inches) below the Thule graves.  It was actually permanently frozen, and therefore everything organic was in great shape.   It looks like there was an Ipuitak dwelling (maybe there were more that had already eroded–we don’t know) on a ridge near the ocean.  Sometime between 300-400 AD there was a huge storm, which washed all sorts of things (driftwood, bark, marine invertebrates, shellfish, peat, etc.) up onto the beach, all the way up to where the people were living.  It left what is called a strand-line.  It looks like they either left in a hurry and didn’t come back, or didn’t survive, since a number of artifacts were still there. The strand-line continued along what had been the beach ridge, and we wanted to see if there was any evidence of more human activity besides the one dwelling.  Because there was so much wood, and a number of the artifacts at the dwelling had been wood, we had a needle in a haystack problem, with the haystack about to fall into the ocean (which it did the next winter).  So we bulk sampled.

Close-up of the Ipiutak layer at DWF. We excavated many square meters of this!

Now we are going through some of the bulk samples.  I’ve been very lucky to have Dr. Claire Alix, a French scholar who specializes in Arctic driftwood and its use by humans, involved with the project since the very early days.  She was based in Fairbanks, Alaska, for many years, but has recently gotten a teaching and research position at the Sorbonne in Paris.  This is wonderful, since Claire is a great person & really deserves it, but it certainly complicates the logistics of her research on this wood!

Dr. Claire Alix in the Nuvuk Lab

Claire arrived on this morning’s plane, and is already hard at work going through samples from 2009 which were excavated after she left the field.  She is looking for all worked (altered by people) items, picking out things that we can’t yet identify for further examination, and recording amounts & types of wood, bark, and other identifiable organics.  The non-worked identified material is then being lab discarded.  I’ve got the computer map up and color-coded so Claire can look at it when she needs to, Laura is unwrapping the samples, and I’ll probably end up doing the data entry in the catalog.  She leaves again on Wednesday night, and won’t be back in the US until sometime after January, so we’ve got a lot to do, and not much time to do it.

Claire and Laura hard at work.
Lab discards--on closer examination they turned out not to be cultural.

Later this fall we are going to start going through soil samples and so forth.  We hope to be able to reduce the volume they take up.  Some of that will be done by separating the actual sample material of interest from the gravel matrix.  Where that isn’t possible (for example with large logs or whalebone) we will have to sub-sample, retaining only a portion of the total sample volume.  Otherwise, we’re going to run out of room.


While the dental extern was busy in the lab, Laura was there to help her find things, answer questions, and so forth. I was busy with other things.

A couple of Navy archaeologists (yes, the US Navy has archaeologists) were in Barrow last week to look at a tract that the Navy may be transferring to UIC, the Barrow village corporation, to get an idea of what needs to be done to comply with cultural resource protection laws prior to transferring Federal land. Neither of them has any Arctic experience, and they stopped by my office to pick my brain a bit. The next day they were doing a few STPs on an old beach ridge on the tract, and asked if I’d like to join them. It was a warm sunny day, with not much wind, and therefore many mosquitos. I hiked our from my office building to meet them, we checked out the area a bit & I hiked back. Other than all the bugs, it was great.

Navy archaeologists David Grant and Bruce Larson surveying.

We didn’t find anything cultural that was older than NARL, but we did find a couple very old gravel beaches. We did find some stakes that had probably marked research plots, and a big aluminum object that looked like an aircraft part. It had some cable attached to the front, as if someone had been trying to tow it. Apparently they gave up.  If you happen to recognize this, please let me know and I’ll pass the information on.

Large aluminum mystery object on Navy tract.

The next day I got a call from the City of Barrow. They run the cemeteries, and had been getting reports that a coffin was partially open. They had checked, and indeed a coffin had been frost-heaved and was damaged. They asked if I could come over when they moved the person into a new coffin. We decided to do it the next afternoon, after they got the new coffin built.

Fortunately, the old coffin wasn’t damaged except for a bit of the lid, so we were able to get the dirt off to make it lighter without disturbing the remains. The City crew was able to lift the entire box out and place it in the new larger coffin. It was a tight fit, because the old coffin had been covered with canvas that was nailed on, but that wasn’t clear when they had measured for the new box! Luckily they had left a bit of space, so they were able to pry a bit and get it in. I got the canvas that had frozen in out so it could go along.  I’d mostly been there in case the coffin was fragile and we had to transfer the individual, to make sure that nothing got left, but that wasn’t needed.

Once the coffin was out of the grave, the idea was to dig it a bit deeper, and then rebury the person. The soil profile was pretty interesting. There was clay (which generally is deposited on the bottom of bodies of still water) very close to the surface, despite the fact that the grave was on a mound. Apparently the permafrost has pushed it up a good bit, although it may have been deposited when sea level was higher than today.

Permanently frozen clay exposed in grave in Barrow cemetery.

The crew did what they could with shovels, but thaw was not that deep, as you can see from the picture above, so they were going to get a compressor and jack hammer, to really get the grave deeper, when I left.  If not, frost heaving would just bring the box up again in a few years.