Trip to Wainwright–Maudheim?

When I got the information from the AHRS files, one of the two sites listed was Maudheim.  I recognized the name, but had connected it with a Norwegian-British-Swedish station in Antarctica.  Obviously that wasn’t it.  It turned out the Maudheim near Wainwright was a station that had been built by Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer, in 1921 or 22 in connection with his planned flight over the North Pole.  It was meant as an overwintering base, although it seems that Amundsen actually spent the winter in Nome, leaving his pilot Oskar Omdal to take care of Maudheim and the plane.

After the expedition was over, Maudheim was apparently acquired by the Midnight Sun Trading Company, which seems to have dealt in coal from small mines near Wainwright as well as other standard items.  There may have been some additions to the building.  Although the trading post seems to have gone out of business quite some time ago, the building survived for many years.  According to Tim, he was told it was torn down a few years ago since it was not being maintained (no real owner) and people in Wainwright were afraid it was becoming a hazard for kids.

Footprint of a building, probably Maudheim.
Ice cellar near Maudheim site.


Trip to Wainwright–Part 2

Once we finished with the original reason for the trip, we headed back to town for lunch.  The Olgoonik Hotel does have a very tasty grilled cheese sandwich, and they make their own soups.

Since there was time left, I decided it would be a good idea to go back to the general area where the possible road would go, since between the TLUI and the AHRS there were a number of nearby sites.  Given that many of them were not located by GPS (in some cases the only location data was something like “3 miles from Wainwright” it seemed like it would help my clients to know a bit more about the situation prior to actually trying to design a road.

The TLUI showed an area whose name translates as “a place to tent” very close to the find.  There was a fairly flat area between the river and a lagoon which looked likely (especially in the past, when sea level was a wee bit lower) so we went there.  There was some evidence of tenting, and a lot more of butchering, mostly of larger marine mammals, including beluga and maybe a porpoise (they are found around there, and the skull didn’t look right for a beluga, of which there were multiple examples).  But what there was also evidence of was archaeology.  And lots of it!  There were a veritable plethora of trenches, very overgrown, so this had all happened some time ago.

Old 1m x 1m unit
Two units separated by a baulk
Yet more excavations, at a slightly higher elevation.

Tim was fascinated, and wanted to clean a wall, so I headed off to get my trowel.  He’d started with a bone he found, and discovered that under the lichen the wall in question was very hard.  I started to clean it and immediately recognized oil-indurated sand.  It became clear that there were overlapping patches of oil induration at various levels, and that the area had been used to process marine mammals for some time.  It was a sunny day, and after a while the smell of marine mammal oil permeated the pit.  It’s the smell of archaeology in the north, and I love it.  Others may think differently.

This was very interesting, as one would expect that this much excavation would only happen if the archaeologists were finding things.  If one put several sterile trenches in, one would probably go elsewhere.  Yet, there is no site recorded in the AHRS at that location, and I’m not sure who did this.  There are a couple of hints in Waldo Bodfish’s autobiography with Bill Schneider, but there is still a mystery to solve there.

And then there’s Maudheim…


Trip to Wainwright–Part 1

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, I had to make a quick trip to Wainwright.  It was way quicker than I liked, because I didn’t have time to get in touch with folks before going, and really just had to do what I came to do and jump back on a plane.  A human skull had shown up during a survey, and the client wanted to know if it was an isolated find or not.

So I flew to Wainwright on Thursday night.  Tim Van Sickle from Olgoonik, the Wainwright village corporation met me and took me over to the Olgoonik Hotel.  We got some dinner and made plans for the next day.

After breakfast, we caught up with the son of the landowner, who was handling access arrangements.  After discussing it with him, we headed to the GPS location given by the surveyors, taking four-wheelers along the lagoon.  As usual, the LCMF surveyors GPS and my not nearly as fancy unit agreed, and it put me within .5m of the spot.  It was up on some high ground overlooking the Kuk River (kind of redundant name, if poorly spelled–kuuk means river) and lagoon.  The view was great.

Wainwright lagoon and small lake

Indeed, the surveyors were correct.  I examined the area, and discovered, that there were additional remains.  Interestingly, although the skull had been were it was found for quite a while (no plants growing under it) it had previously been about a meter away, where the lower jaw was embedded in the tundra, and a now-well vegetated depression into which the skull fit still existed!

Where the skull has been for a while

There was some indication that there might have been a grave, but there was also a frost crack and a bone partially covered with vegetation visible on the surface.  I gently removed some of the vegetation to let me see if the surface bone was human, and then tested where the jaw suggested the rest of the skeleton should be if it had been a burial.  Although we had a shovel with us, I opted to use only a trowel, to avoid any damage if there was anything buried.  Tim took pictures of me actually working, and I’ve included a couple which don’t show any human remains.  As he said, people always tell him he’s got great pictures of Alaska, but he’s never in any of them, so he volunteered to take some of me.  Many thanks!

Removing vegetation to identify bone. Photo: Tim Van Sickle
Cutting sod with a trowel. Photo: Tim Van Sickle
Taking notes. Photo: Tim Van Sickle

In the end, it looks like the person, most likely a woman, probably was laid to rest on the surface, which was the practice in this area when Euroamericans arrived.  Exactly when the switch from actual burial, as at Nuvuk, to “surface burial” took place is not clear yet.  Since there is no actual project yet, and it is possible there never will be, or it will be located at a considerable distance (more likely due to this find), we placed some stakes so that people on four-wheelers or snowmachines would be less likely to run the remains over, and left them where they had been laid to rest.  If things change, time enough to move them then.  They are in a nice place, with lots of salmonberries nearby.

More salmonberries!

Sadly for us, the patches had been picked pretty recently, so we only found a handful of ripe berries :-(.

The good folks at the NSB (thanks Tommy and Qaiyaan) had provided me with maps of the area to take along showing locations of TLUI (Traditional Land Use Inventory) sites and AHRS sites plotted along with the GPS of the remains.  Several of them were very close, so after we had confirmed the existence of the remains, we went to look for evidence and more precise locations of those sites.  That way I can give that data back to them so they can improve their database.

Further adventures

I have been majorly busy since the last post.  I had two days to get a RAPID proposal in to NSF for funds to salvage the remaining portion of the Ipiutak structure.

The Ipiutak structure excavation and the sea

I was scheduled to go to Cape Espenberg to take part in a project there under the direction of John Hoffecker of INSTAAR, and had to get on a plane on July 28.   I wasn’t due back in Barrow until August 13th, and NSF had to process all grants before then, so if the proposal didn’t get in then, they wouldn’t be able to get the money out if it was successful.  Since the house could go in a storm, I spent 2 days writing & submitting the proposal, threw my stuff in a dry bag & my day pack and left for Cape Espenberg.

I had a great time there, with interesting archaeology, which will be a post for another day.  From Cape Espenberg, I flew to Kotzebue and then on to Point Hope for the North Slope Borough Elders/Youth Conference.  It was a great conference, and I had a great time, despite finding out that the workshop I thought I was giving was actually a talk to the entire conference (which I had no PowerPoint for).  Another post for another day.  While there, I found out that the RAPID was successful.

I got back to Barrow after some weather and plane repair delays, to find that the surveyors who I was supposed to work with had done their thing and left town.  I’ve been extracting info from them and trying to get that survey set up, since the report needs to get done, the helicopter needs to head south & I have a 4-day  trip to New York State scheduled on the 25th.  Meanwhile, it turns out that most if not all of the heavy equipment in Barrow is either committed to a job or broken, so we’re having trouble getting a bulldozer to move the 100 yards of gravel piled on top of the rest of the Ipiutak structure.

If that’s not enough, a human skull was found in Wainwright by surveyors (actually the same surveyors) who were doing preliminary work for a possible road project.  The client decided that it would be a good idea to get an archaeologist to come down and see if the skull was an isolated find or if there might be more, and give them suggestions for how to proceed with the road design, as well as make sure the proper reports and documentation were done.  I leave for Wainwright tomorrow afternoon, and hope to be back Friday night, weather permitting.

On top of that, there’s a teleconference & a meeting in the morning.  I just finished an interview with Pat Yack of Alaska Public Radio Network (APRN), who won a ticket to anywhere ERA flies and used it to come to Barrow.   It was quite enjoyable, since he’d done some homework, and asked intelligent questions.  Turns out he’s next-door neighbors with Max Brewer, the long-time NARL science director who lived in the house we now live in.  Small world.

Pat Yack, APRN, at work in the Nuvuk lab
Pat Yack, APRN, at work in the Nuvuk lab

More Whales! Hey, hey, hey Iceberg 17!

Friday two more whales were taken for Barrow, by Yugu and Arey crews, and another two on Saturday, by Ben Itta’s crew and Herman Ahsoak’s crew.

But the really exciting news comes from Wainwright!  For the first time in many years (Glenn & I both seem to remember hear a story about a fall gray whale from the 1930s), Wainwright, Alaska, took a fall whale!  The successful crew was Iceberg 17.  The news made it to Kaktovik where a North Slope Healthy Communities meeting was going on, and John Hopson Jr., a Wainwright whaling captain, as well as NSB Assemblyman, and a great guy, announced it from the podium.  Bill Hess, who has been taking great photographs of the North Slope for decades, was there, and he took a photo which pretty much sums up what whales mean to people here.  The man in the background is NSB Mayor Edward Itta, also a whaling captain.  Aarigaa Iceberg 17!