A radio interview

Yesterday was supposed to be a big day for interviews.  One of the Alaska TV stations has someone coming to Barrow who wanted an interview, and Joe Schuldenrein was scheduled to prerecord an interview with me for his internet radio show on archaeology, Indiana Jones:  Myth, Reality and 21st Century Archaeology.  Unfortunately for them, the TV folks went on a tour of the entire state, except Barrow, courtesy of Alaska Airlines and didn’t get in until after 7 PM.  We may reschedule.

The radio interview did happen, and will be broadcast today, 1 PM EDT, 4PM AKDT.  I believe you should be able to access the archived version here after the broadcast.  If you want to listen live, I think you can log in here and do so, but I don’t know the details, since I have only tried the saved version of the show.

Now for some time in the lab, and maybe another interview…



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Indiana Jones: Myth, Reality and 21st Century Archaeology

Extreme Archaeology: Doing Archaeology above the Arctic Circle

October 30, 2013

Imagine that you are an archaeologist carrying your equipment to site only to meet a polar bear along the way! Once you’ve arrived at site, weather conditions may mean the ground is too frozen to dig or you have a chance of getting hypothermia if you try waterscreening. While Indiana Jones is well known for his travels to far off places and harrowing recovery of artifacts, what are the dangers of archaeology in less desirable destinations? Our guest, Dr. Anne Jensen, has over 30 years experience working in Barrow, Alaska, the ninth northernmost city in the world! Although remote, the climate of Alaska’s north coast allows for the recovery of some remarkable items including ivory harpoons, plank floors, and even seal oil. Join our guest, Dr. Anne Jensen, and us as we discuss her archaeological work in this far-flung part of the world and how her findings challenge the idea that such environments are inhospitable for human occupation. Learn More »

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A bit more about Iñupiat subsistence whaling

My post on the Anagi crew’s whale has gotten a number of comments from people who are interested, one way or another, in whales.  Some of them are genuinely interested in learning more about whales & Iñupiat whaling; others appear not to be.  I’m going to try to answer some of the questions, and provide links to sites that can give even more information.

But first,  see this Public Service Announcement.

OK, now a bit of history.  Alaska Natives (and in fact many other Native Americans and Canadian First Nations people) have been whaling for 2000 years or more, since before the Thule culture developed, based on archaeology.  Aboriginal whaling did not damage the whale stocks in any way that can be detected.  What damaged whale stocks was European (and later Euro-American) commercial whaling.  The bowhead was popular with commercial whalers because it was non-agressive and had a lot of blubber for whale oil, plus long baleen.  Most Eastern Arctic stocks were decimated by the early 19th century.

In the western North American Arctic, commercial whaler Thomas Welcome Roys first cruised north of the Bering Strait in 1848, starting a rush to catch the plentiful and naive Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort stock of bowheads on which so many coastal Alaska natives and their inland trading partners depended.  The whales soon became skittish and scarce and many Alaska Natives died of starvation.

Once oil was struck in Pennsylvania, one of the big reasons for hunting whales diminished.  But the baleen, the plates in a whale’s mouth that they use to filter-feed, was still valuable for buggy whips and corset and collar stays.  Bowheads have by far the longest baleen of any whale (15 feet or more from a big whale), so they were still hunted until those items were no longer in fashion or needed.

Many coastal Alaska Natives had become involved in commercial whaling, including shore-based commercial whaling carried out with traditional Iñupiat techniques with Yankee style harpoons, to support their families.  After commercial whaling ended, coastal whaling communities continued these hunts, combining traditional techniques and traditional and modern technology.

In the late 1970’s, some Western biologists, who were not experienced in the Arctic and knew little about bowhead whales (biologists didn’t back then) tried to count bowheads.  They believed that the whales were scared of ice!  They thought the bowheads had to travel in a lead and would come up to breathe in the lead so they could be counted.  Even if that were true, they didn’t account for the fact that there are multiple leads, and that the whales only have to breathe every so often and that wouldn’t necessarily be where the observation post was.  They came up with a count of several hundred whales, and of course, sounded the alarm.  A moratorium was declared on Alaska Native whaling in 1977 (years before the moratorium on commercial whaling, I might add).

Since many families got (and still do get today) a significant portion of their meat from whales, this was a huge problem.  Although wages may look high in places like Alaska’s North Slope, costs are high too, and many families do not have someone who is working in the cash economy and can afford to feed a family on store food and whatever else they can hunt (and of course full-time work does interfere with hunting, which was traditionally a full-time occupation itself).  Most Iñupiat had never heard of the International Whaling commission, and couldn’t understand why they felt it appropriate to starve human beings by forbidding them to feed themselves.

They were particularly puzzled because senior whaling captains and hunters who had spent many decades on the ice had observed that the bowhead population appeared to be growing from the depths it had sunk to by the end of commercial whaling.  They knew that bowheads are not scared of ice.  In fact they can breathe under quite thick ice (they become positively buoyant and use the bow on their head where their nostrils are to push up the ice, cracking enough to let air into the little tented space formed under the ice and breathe there, and then submerge and go on about their business), and that they would not restrict travel to the near shore lead, so they knew the count was wrong.

The North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management, with many cooperating researchers over the years, has been studying bowhead whales ever since.  They soon developed a much better way to count them, which is continually refined.  Counts now show an annual rate of increase of 3.2%, which is really high for such long-lived animals.

The Alaska Native Bowhead hunt is highly regulated.   The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC) manages the hunt under authority from the US government.  There is a quota of strikes (not whales taken, but whales struck so there is an incentive to land every whale struck if humanly possible), which is established based on document subsistence needs of each whaling community, in light of the population estimates. This quota is set so that communities get what they need and no more.  The harvest is considerably below what population biologists would consider a sustainable harvest if they were talking about elk, or caribou, or mule deer.  As long as something else, like marine noise or a massive oil spill in Arctic waters, doesn’t come along and decimate the population the way commercial whaling did, this is absolutely a sustainable harvest, carried out by people who entire culture is centered around that harvest.

The AEWC divides the quota between communities, based on active crews and population, and approves the transfer of strikes between communities (if, say, the ice is bad in one place and they can’t catch whales, they may transfer their strikes to a place with better conditions) since the maktak and meat is shared and everyone on the North Slope and beyond benefits if whales are taken.  Only captains and crews registered with the AEWC are allowed to take whales, and violations of rules, ceasefires, etc can and has led to punishment or suspension of the offending captain.

When a whale is taken there are traditional rules for sharing which vary by community.  In general, specific shares go the captain, the boat (itself–although obviously the boat owner disposes of the boat’s share), the harpooner, the other crew members, and the other boats which helped tow the whale back to be cut up.  Anyone who shows up to help with the butchering (even a little) gets a share.  My daughter helped a very little once when she was about 8, and she came home with a small share.  The captain’s wife and her helpers cook round the clock after the whale is ashore, and when they are ready, the captain’s flag is hoisted and anyone who wants can go and get fed (they will usually send to-go plates to house-bound Elders).

After that, the captain and crew get ready for a celebration where a great deal more of the whale is shared with whomever shows up.  People get whale meat, maktak, kidney, intestine, tail, flipper, gums, plus goose soup, mikiaq (whale blubber, meat & blood, fermented–and before you say gross, when was the last time you ate curdled drained milk with mold on it–AKA a nice Stilton or Brie?), rolls, cakes, fruit, etc.  Most families in the community go to at least one of these every year.  Many go to all of them.  The amount given to each person depends on how many in the family (and the servers pretty much know or the people sitting around do, so no one fibs).  Captains also give out meat & maktak at Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts to whomever shows up (usually much of the community), and usually will provide some for potluck and other festivities as well.  They also share with Elders & folks who need it during the year.  Most of the folks with whom it is shared share it farther.  Shares travel to Anchorage and even to the Lower 48.  Some of the people who get shares send back things like berries or smoked salmon from their area, or caribou from the interior.

None of the whale, or any other marine mammal for that matter, can be sold, with the exception that Alaska coastal Natives can use baleen or bone or ivory to make handicrafts, which they then may sell.  They are not allowed to waste the rest of the animal just to get these products.

There is a great list of links to good solid information on the bowhead whale and bowhead hunt here.

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Chipping away at things

I’ve been chipping away at a bunch of things.  The main ones are the big Late Western Thule chapter and an associated project which involve evaluating every Birnirk & later C14 date I can get hold from Alaska, to see which ones hold up (a number that are cited a lot are really early solid carbon dates!) and what exactly was dated.  In some cases, what was dated was in a different house from the “diagnostic” which is purportedly being dated, and there is no a priori reason to think the houses are contemporaneous.  It may have been the best that could be done at the time, but some revision is needed here.  Once those are done, I can finish the two other papers I am working on.

We got the symposium for the Alaska Anthropological Association meeting more or less put together, pending any additional papers submitted as general papers that the organizers may send us, and next week we’ll just have to decide on an order so the conference organizers can get their materials to the printer in good time.

I’ve also been invited to be a speaker at a small conference on Sustainability and Heritage in Kirkwall, Orkney which is sort of the main kick-off for a Research Coordination Network (RCN) on Global Long-Term Ecodynamics in which I am fortunate enough to be involved.  I’ve never been to Orkney, but I love the Shetlands, so I’m looking forward to it.  There are some great people involved, and we’re trying to do some really interesting things involving the use of archaeological data to illuminate questions about long-term sustainability.  I actually owe them an abstract by tomorrow (which it actually is in Orkney), so I better get to it.

An update on the child

I’ve more or less recovered from whatever I had, so I’ve actually got some energy to post.  Herewith a quick update on the person in the parka and the skin clothes, etc that accompanied her (I’m no sure the person is a girl, but I need to pick a pronoun.

I was able to get the pantaloons off, although the legs fell apart.  The boot part was apparently made from either leg skins or fawn skins.  The waist seems to be have been made out of something similar, maybe as a waistband.  The main part of the pants is regular caribou hide, which has much longer thicker hair.  Since the waistband was wrapped around a belt made from a piece of hide, perhaps the regular caribou was too thick and inflexible to be suitable.

Fragment of belt, just above the photo scale.

The back of the parka was about 10-15 cm longer (I can’t be more precise since the preservation was not perfect), and looked like it may have had a rounded hem.  As far as I could see, there were no seams.  According to Murdoch (which seems to be out of print again except in print-on-demand), children’s parka didn’t have back seams, but I am waiting on a couple of other books on skin clothing, and a few more experienced skin sewers opinions.

Back of parka. Outside of garment (after it was flipped). Shoulders at top.

It took a bit of doing to get a look at the back, since it was fairly well stuck to the caribou hide underneath.  I ended up getting Shawn to help me.  We got a piece of Visqueen underneath the whole thing, very carefully, put plastic on top of it, and then put a piece of plywood on top to stabilize everything, held the plastic tight to the wood, and flipped everything.  It worked well, and we were able to use the same method for the sewn wolf-skin item (still unidentified).

The wolf-skin has a lot of seams.  Some bits are badly preserved or very badly matted, so it’s not clear what it used to be.  However, a number of the smaller pieces that have been sewn together are still pretty much intact.  I tried putting a picture of it onto my iPad, and opening it with Omnigraffle, so I could try drawing on the seam.  I’m hoping that it will make it easier to understand, and that maybe someone will recognize what those pieces go to.  I know this can work, since Bertha Leavitt was able to identify that the little girl from Ukkuqsi was buried with a kayak cover (among other things) based on the shape of a couple of pieces of sewn boat cover skins.

I’m still working on the drawings a bit to clean them up, and I’ll put them up on a separate page when they’re ready.

I also managed to finish a review today, and to get a bit done on a paper that I owe some folks.  Both are actually for the same journal, different issues.

Folks were out whaling, and Panigeo crew took a whale, which is probably nearly done being butchered by now (judging by Jimmy Nukapigak’s Facebook updates :-)) .  There was supposed to be one or maybe two more possibly struck, but I’m not sure yet.  The weather is supposed to get worse, so I hope they get in soon.

The child is out

Just a short post, because I’m home celebrating my birthday (mostly by coughing–the cold has moved to my chest).

The child is completely out of the parka and pantaloons (Murdoch’s term), and Shawn was able to examine the remains.  No change in the age estimate.

I was able to get some pictures of the boot part of the pantaloons.  They look like they may have been made from leg skin (something with shorter finer hair than the main part of a caribou hide), with separate soles.

Sole of the left boot

There was a seam up the middle of the vamp on each boot.  The boots seem to have been sewn to the pants, which were of caribou hide.

Seam up the vamp

More tomorrow.

Sometimes science produces unexpected results…

Much of today went trying to find freezer space for the person in the parka.  We were able to get X-rays done by the North Slope Borough vet clinic (they needed a bit of practice with a new machine anyway), and there are skeletal elements in the parka.  I talked to a conservator and it seems possible that the garments might be able to be preserved if the community chooses. We need to have a discussion with the Elders about that.

At least we need to document them really well, as they are being removed so the person can be examined and reburied.  To do that we need not only a good videographer, but also a group of experience skin sewers, since the sinew has decayed, and it may only be possible to figure out what stitch was use by skilled sewers looking at the ghosts they left.  We need to get the funds for that work, which probably won’t be available until October or so.  That means that we need a freezer to keep the person in a stable environment until the examination can happen.

CPS/UMIAQ couldn’t really offer anything right now, except to note that it hadn’t been requested in the program plan last year (sadly, I’m not clairvoyant–if I were, we could skip all the pesky shovel testing).  Fortunately, North Slope Borough Wildlife Management also has a freezer, and they were kind enough to step up and help out in this urgent situation.  Many thanks to DWM!  One UMIAQ fellow later thought of a freezer that might be a possible fallback, although it’s got stuff in it at the moment.

Next step, grant applications for that work and for the Ipiutak structure that remains at the bluff in the DWF, waiting for the next big storm to take it out.

What a day!

The weather was not pleasant.  It rained all day, and was pretty cold.  My fingers are swollen up like sausages.  The rain also took out the track pad on the computer for the transit, so we couldn’t back up the files in the field.  We were able to use a mouse in the lab, and got the files backed up and transferred to the other laptop, so if the track pad doesn’t perk up, we’re OK.  My Nikon Coolpix S9100, which I just got last night to replace one that failed after a week, died the same way today.  Nikon won’t issue a refund for 15 days, which is truly ridiculous under the circumstances.  I’ve been committed to Nikon, loved all the SLRs I’ve had (FM, 4 FEs, 4 N70s, D200) and liked everything about this camera, too, except it won’t work.  Epic fail.  So don’t buy one!

On the plus side, the very deep burial turned out to be a person wearing a fur parka and wrapped in hide!  You can even see traces of the stitching.  We aren’t sure how well-preserved the person is (we found a few finger bones and a nail inside the cuff).  We decided to take it out en bloc (complete) and take it back to the lab to excavate in controlled conditions so we can document the garment better, since it is very fragile.  We had some plywood brought out and managed to slide it through the gravel under the entire burial and lift the whole thing.  This required the digging of a very large hole, which we’ll now need to backfill.  Many thanks to Brower Frantz and his crew for bringing out the plywood and transporting the individual back to the lab while we kept on in the field.

Right arm and side of the fur parka, lying on a hide.
Close-up of stitching on parka

The DWF keeps yielding more artifacts, some of which are quite nice.  We’re trying to get to a reasonable stopping point and figure out a way to protect the exposed feature in case we can get funds to work on it in September.

Artifacts from DWF.

Back at it…

After a day off, we were back in the field today.  The GPR hits we tested were mostly concentrations of water, and buried whale bones (not part of graves, unless it was a whale grave).  However, we also looked at two other areas that had turned up in the trails on the first day’s walkover.  One proved to be nothing but a concentration of refuse.  The other wasn’t looking much more promising, with peat and a little wood, but we took it down to expose all the wood, and low and behold, a very large piece of wood indeed, which is a burial cover.  We will have to excavate that tomorrow.  There will also be a new set of GPR results to test.

The burial cover exposed. That is one piece of wood! The dustpan is covering what may be a bone, so the photo can be used for the public.

There is also some wood exposed on the erosion face at what looks like the Ipiutak level, including something that looks like architecture.

Notched log resting on another log. Ipiutak?

The slog continues…

I am still plowing through the literature seeking out information on C14 dates.  Some of it is really hard to come by, with a date attributed to a house but no  information on the sample, either what it was or where it came from.  Then I look at the information on the artifacts from that house, turn to the plates (not naming any names here, but there are multiple offenders) to look at the artifacts, and see that the plates say they are from a house nearby.  Obviously either the text or the plates are wrong (unless they both are, but I’d rather not go there), so now one is left quite unsure of what was really being dated, and what sorts of artifacts were actually associated with that date.  Cross-dating based on artifact assemblages takes another one on the chin.

Another example from today: a date on wood and skin (what kind? caribou, seal, polar bear?) from a burial for which the description seems to indicate that it was only a few baby teeth!  It’s one thing to have typos in a dissertation, but in published books that people are expected to pay money for?  If people don’t read carefully, and compare about three different places in the book at once, it’s all too easy to accept a date at face value and assume that what is said about what it was found with is correct.  Then it gets mentioned elsewhere, and people read it there and pass it on, and so forth.

Such dates do not get high scores for context or association with the event being dated.  Actually they get zeros, since those factors are unknown.

All this in aid of a handbook article (well, two articles, since this C14 stuff should make an article as well).  On the other hand, a number of people say it should be useful.  I’m sure they’re all really glad that I’m doing it and they aren’t.  Can’t say I blame them.

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.

Papers and articles and PowerPoints, oh my…

Despite the fact that I am still in New York on vacation (except for things like on-line payroll and P-card reviewing and approving, which can’t wait), I’m taking a bit a of a break from reading mysteries and eating Christmas goodies to work on several things I have in progress.  I’m not going to be able to finish any of them, since I don’t have any books here for checking references, and most of the images I want to use are in the Aperture vault  on my computer back in Barrow.  However, I can do outlines, and get a fair bit of the text drafted before I get home, at least for some of them.

In order they are: 1) PowerPoint & accompanying paper on Iñupiat and Cold War Science for a conference in Munich, 2) encyclopedia article on Western Thule 1300-1750AD in North & Northwest Alaska (in 7000 words maximum!), 3)PowerPoint on Alaskan archaeological sites and threats to them from climate change as it has been observed to be occurring for a conference in Tromsø, Norway, 4) article I’m working on with Claire Alix and Owen Mason on Ipiutak at Nuvuk, 5)  encyclopedia article on Barrow sites (Nuvuk, Birnirk and Utqiagvik), 6) paper on ethnographic data on storage of whaling gear, and 7) a paper on whaling gear recovered from archaeological sites which are known to have had whaling taking place.

These all have places they are to go, and times they need to be there.  Nothing concentrates the mind like deadlines, except perhaps the threat of execution…