Here’s hoping the plane makes it in tonight…

…because Shawn Miller, the physical anthropologist who will be documenting the human remains excavated at Nuvuk this summer, is supposed to be on it. The weather has been rather unfortunate of late, and a number of flights have tried to land, only to be turned back by visibility below minimums, thanks to the fact that the folks who sited the Will Rogers-Wiley Post Memorial Airport seem to have picked the foggiest spot they could find. A lot of folks have gone back and forth between Anchorage or Fairbanks and Barrow a couple of times by now (and you don’t get frequent flier miles for that).

We’ve got the lab all ready, and Laura is getting Shawn’s equipment (various digital measuring devices) out in case he wants to get an early start.  Once he’s done, we can arrange the reburial.

The deceased see a dentist

This week, the individuals we excavated this summer saw a dentist.  This is not as silly as it may sound.

The various individuals whose burials we excavate at Nuvuk are not kept in a museum somewhere for future study.  That is the way things were done in the past, but nowadays that is not acceptable to most descendant communities (people who consider themselves descended from the individuals whose remains are in question).  There are laws specifically to protect Native American graves, as well as laws which protect all graves regardless of the ethnic origin of the occupant.  This is a good thing, but it does mean that either research has to be completed very quickly, or new ways to save data for future research need to be found.

The current residents of Barrow, some of whom are the children of people who grew up at Nuvuk, generally think people should be left where they were buried, absent a pressing reason to move them.  In general, I agree.  My primary research interests don’t involve digging up burials, which makes it odd that I’ve been involved in excavating over 70 of them at Nuvuk over the years.  The thing is, the point is eroding, and if the graves aren’t excavated and moved, their occupants will wind up in the ocean.  So there is an urgent reason to be doing these excavations.

Since they are happening, most folks in Barrow agree that it makes sense to learn as much as we can about the individuals, prior to reburying them in the Barrow cemetery.   I’ve mentioned that a rib is saved for aDNA extraction, which takes place in Dennis O’Rourke’s lab at the University of Utah.  Everything else happens in Barrow.  For a number of years, the Dental Clinic at Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital has sent one or more dental externs (dental students who have come to Barrow to get practical experience in the clinic) to work with the Nuvuk Archaeology Project for a day or two at a time.  Sometimes they have come to the field with us, but their primary role has been in the lab, where they examined the teeth of the various individuals whose remains we have recovered.  In addition to recording the teeth on standard dental charts, including information on disease and anomalies, they have made casts of the teeth, just like the ones dentists make of live patients in their offices.  The idea came Amanda Gaynor-Ashley, DDS, until recently head of the dental clinic, who was visiting the lab a few years ago and noticed that some of the skulls had unusual dental patterns that looked just like those she was seeing on patients in the chairs at the clinic.  Dentition (shape and arrangement of the teeth) is highly heritable (it runs in families).  Since the individuals we were looking at were going to be reburied, Mandy suggested trying to cast their teeth.  It worked well, and each since the externs have done it for the individuals excavated that year.  Even after they are buried, we will have an accurate representation of their teeth for future researchers.

Casts of upper and lower jaws of 10A927
Cast of all that remained of 10A928's tooth rows

Since we started doing this, I stumbled across a mention of a collection of dental casts of living Barrow residents which was made by a researcher in the 1950s.  It apparently still exists, so the casts we are making as part of the NAP may well have an important place in a future research project.

Some of the casts from previous years.
More of the casts.

Later this week, Shawn Miller, the physical anthropologist from the University of Utah will arrive.  We will have to get the casts put away before that to give him maximum space to work.

The burial of a very large man

I mentioned that we started excavating a burial on the 15th of July and didn’t finish until the evening of the 19th, due to some really nasty weather.  It was simply too windy to excavate from Thursday afternoon until Monday the 19th after lunch.  Rain, sleet, and snow are all bothersome, but can be worked around.  Once the wind speeds get over about 30 mph, the chances of small artifacts (or even worse, small skeletal elements) being moved before their position is recorded or even blowing away altogether is real.  Wind speeds at Nuvuk are usually 5-10 mph higher than the official NWS measurements in Barrow.  Last year we had a Kestrel 4000 portable anemometer on site, but Laura’s dog Sir John Franklin ate it, so we have to estimate a bit.

We started work on the burial, called 10A927 on Wednesday, clearing vegetation and the organic soils covering the actual burial.  On the 15th, we began exposing the individual.  The skeleton was quite well-preserved.  It quickly became apparent from the size of the femur (thighbone) that this had been a very large person.  Dennis O’Rourke, the physical anthropologist who has the grant to work on the aDNA from Nuvuk, helps with the excavations each season.  He’s pretty tall (I’m guessing maybe 6’4″) and his opinion was that the burial was of someone who was very close to his height.  That would pretty much have been a giant at the time of European contact, since the tallest man the Ray expedition’s surgeon George Oldmixon measured in 1882-3 was 5’8 3/4″ tall.  There have been several other fairly tall individuals in the ancient graves at Nuvuk, so maybe the average height was depressed at contact because of poor nutrition because Yankee whaling had depleted the whale stocks pretty badly.  We were able to get an aDNA sample, which we take as soon as the ribs begin to show.  Jenny suits up and excavates and collects a previously unexposed rib.  Weather forced us to tarp the burial to protect it until conditions improved.

Wave breaking on the Beaufort beach at Nuvuk as the weather improves.

On Monday the 19th, the weather was pretty bad in the morning, but by lunch time it was improving, so we went out.  The passing of the storm had brought the winds around from SW to ENE, so the first order of business was to move the windbreaks on burials 10A927 and 10D75 (which we were excavating simultaneously).   We then began excavating.  10A927 turned out to be a very interesting burial.  The skeleton was nearly complete and well-preserved, and the positioning and grave structure were pretty typical for Nuvuk.  It was very nice to be able to show the students a real-life example.

I can’t show any pictures, as the Barrow Elders do not want them made public, based on past unfortunate experience.  I’ll do my best to describe the burial.  A shallow pit had been dug in the gravel (it’s pretty hard to dig anything else, even with metal shovels, which they didn’t have back then), and surrounded it with a “frame” of wood and/or whalebone.  10A927 had a nice whale rib at the foot, and wood at the sides and head.  The man had been placed on a hide, probably caribou, on his back with his knees bent.  His legs were bent a bit more than usual for Nuvuk, with his feet right by nis pelvis, almost as if the grave had been a bit small.  Perhaps the grave diggers had made the standard grave and he was a little too tall to fit easily.  His face was turned left.  His arms were folded over his chest and stomach.

A number of things had been put in the grave with him.  We found a number of whalebone bola weights (bolas were used for hunting birds), which may actually have been put in as a complete bola.  We also found a lot of the beach cobbles (bigger than the regular gravel and not that common at Nuvuk) that we have come to call “burial rocks” that were placed in some burials.  Most interestingly, he had the top of a human skull , which had apparently been placed on his stomach under his hand, since we found finger bones and a bola weight in it.  The skull appeared to have been on the surface at one point, as it was lighted in color than the skeleton, but it seems to have been placed in the burial deliberately, not found its way in later.  We have had a couple of burials with more than one person in them, and some where a later burial had disturbed an earlier one and ended up with parts of the earlier burial in and around the later one, but nothing like this.

All this was quite complicated to excavate and record.  Since the high school students are all minors, and some are only 15, the easiest way to avoid violating any child labor laws is to make sure they don’t work late.  So they went back to town with one of the bear guards just before 5pm, and the rest of us (Jenny, Laura, Ron & I) stayed out to finish.  It’s kind of unfortunate, since we only work late when something delicate and usually interesting is being excavated, and it seems tough on the students to make them leave just as things get really cool, but since this is a real job for them, we have to be on the safe side and follow all the rules.

We didn’t get done until about 9:15pm.  It wasn’t the greatest weather for all this (never got above 36ºF) but at least the wind dropped for the last couple of hours.

10A927 by the blue tarp, as we pack up at 9:20pm for the ride back to NARL after finishing the excavation.

The Gathering Crew

I’ve been working on a major update to the Nuvuk catalog database structure, and the subsequent import and merging of data from 2 Access databases with about 18,000 records or so. Much keyboard & screen time involved, leaving my hands too sore to type more.

Anyway, that’s done, without disaster, and I’m typing again…

The first of the non-Barrow residents arrives on the evening plane. He’s coming up a bit early to help get ready for actual fieldwork. It looks like he may wind up in the hut next door, which will be handy, since we won’t get a truck assigned to the project for a week or so. The physical anthropologists won’t get here for a couple of weeks, since they can’t do a lot (except help dig) until we’re in the field & finding things. They’ve using the time in the lab instead.