Alaska Anthropological Association–Day 1

I’m in Fairbanks on a combined trip to do some work on the WALRUS project and to give a couple of papers at the Alaska Anthropological Association’s 44th Annual Meeting.  I was supposed to come down on Sunday and got to a zooarchaeological workshop on teeth, but alas there was a blizzard in Utqiaġvik, and that didn’t happen.

Last night, there was the opening reception.  Jenny Blanchard had organized 2-minute talks, which went well.  I did 2 minutes on Walakpa 2016, with a plug for Walakpa 2017.  We didn’t get quite as many people as we’d hoped, since we were in a room at the end of the main entry hall, and people had to pass the bar with free beer to get there, so some folks got sidetracked.

The day started early with a paper on Arctic genetics by Jennifer Raff, Justin Tackney, Margarita Rzhetskaya, Geoff Hayes and Dennis O’Rourke, in a session on the Seward Peninsula.   All of them except for Margarita had worked on the Nuvuk people as part of a big project, also involving modern that was at least in part done at the request of Utqiaġvik Elders (although they didn’t have to twist Dennis & Geoff’s arms too hard).  That project contributed to this paper, and as results continue to come out, it is only getting more interesting.  Now that the North Slope is somewhat understood, the Seward Peninsula is the next gap.

The rest of the session focussed largely on the first field season of a project at Cape Espenberg spearheaded by Claire Alix and Owen Mason.  They are working on a couple of Birnirk houses, one of which was started by an earlier project there that I spent a couple of weeks on.  Very interesting material coming out, and very interesting geomorphological and paleoenvironmental work in progress.  Their dates for Birnirk seem to be running a bit later than what we are seeing at Walakpa, up into the range I would call Early Thule at Nuvuk.  Of course, we aren’t really talking about two different groups of people here, bur rather a change through time, but it is still interesting.  They aren’t nearly done with one of the houses, so it will be interesting to see if they get some earlier dates.

Spent the afternoon polishing my PowerPoints for tomorrow, and now I’m going to try to catch up on sleep.

A busy autumn

When I last posted I had just left for a trip to two conferences in Europe.  Since then, I’ve been in 4 countries, given two papers (at EAA 2015 in Glasgow and CHAGS 11 in Vienna), submitted an organized SAA session for next spring, come home, gone to Fairbanks for shotgun qualification, come back home, had two of the WALRUS project participants up here to cut samples from the bones that the interns have been finding in the collections, written part of two reports, drafted two abstracts for a meeting in November, and started on a proposal for an edited volume dealing with climate change & archaeology.  I haven’t managed to post at all.

Last week was a tough week for Barrow in many ways, with the deaths of several community members, including long-time mayor Nate Olemaun Jr..  On a brighter note, Barrow took three whales on Friday, and another three today.

In Fairbanks, looking for walrus

After a rather long, drawn-out saga, everything is in place and I can draw on funds so I can work on the WALRUS project.  The delays have been really frustrating for everyone involved.   Once I get the interns on board in Barrow, we’ll get back to going through the faunal material we have there for walrus samples.

We are trying to get samples from a wide range of sites.  Since the sampling is destructive, we don’t want to use artifacts if that can be avoided.  Ideally we want  unmodified walrus parts, bone or tooth, or if we can’t get enough of them, manufacturing discards.  As a fallback, we may wind up sampling things like shovels or bola weights, assuming we can get the museum’s permission, since they are common types of artifacts, and not diagnostic (or something that is likely to be displayed).  We currently can’t use tusk parts, since there have been no modern studies to compare their chemistry to that of bones and teeth, so interpretation of results would be problematic. (If any carvers would be able to contribute some scraps from tusks along with a sample of bone and/or a tooth from the same animal, it would be a really big help).  We are also looking for caribou or some terrestrial plant material from the same place in the site for radiocarbon dating, since marine mammals incorporate old carbon and the dates are hard to interpret.

More recent archaeological projects tend to have excavated faunal material in the same way as everything else, with decent stratigraphic control, and also tend to have brought it back from the field.  However, in the early days, that was not often  the case.  Even if material was brought back, it often wasn’t cataloged in any detail, so reports are almost no help in figuring out if there is any walrus to be had in archaeological collections.  A bit of walrus shows up in catalogs, but most of it is in the form of artifacts.  A lot of walrus artifacts (particularly bone, since ivory was clearly an item of trade) suggests that the inhabitants of a site were hunting walrus, so the potential for walrus parts to exist in the collection is there.

Many of the classic sites on the coast of  Alaska have strong indications that walrus were being caught by the people who lived there, but they were excavated decades ago, and finding suitable samples in the collections was not something that could just be done by getting someone to pull a particular bag or catalog number.  It pretty much requires looking through mixed lots of artifacts and bags of bones.  So I’m in Fairbanks doing just that.

We are mostly working in the museum, but it is closed on the weekend, so we got  permission to bring a collection of faunal material to the PI (Nicole Misarti)’s lab, and we went through it yesterday.  It took some doing, but we got though it, and should have plenty of samples.  It was an adventure.  We had 24 boxes, most of them full of bags like this:

Nicole holds a bag from which the bones on the tray burst forth when she took it out of the outer bag.
Nicole holds a bag from which the bones on the tray burst forth (like a scene from Alien) when she took it out of the outer bag.  Sadly, these were almost all ringed seal parts.  Other bags from that box are on the right.

Not all of the bags were correctly labeled, or at least the labels often didn’t specify species, just element, so we had to look.

We found a few other interesting things in the process, including this really large fish bone from Point Hope.

Really big fish bone.
Really big fish bone.
The other side of the really big fish bone.
The other side of the really big fish bone.

I’m pretty sure it’s some sort of cod (Gadid) but exactly what sort?  It’s really big.  If I have time, I’ll talk to the curator of fish, but the mission is walrus samples at the moment.

Help wanted!

Crew members wanted

Nuvuk Archaeology Project

Walakpa Archaeological Salvage Project

WALRUS – Walrus Adaptability and Long-term Responses; Using multi-proxy data to project Sustainability

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We are seeking students (high school or college) to work in the archaeological laboratory on artifacts as part of several NSF-funded research projects. The lab crew will be working on processing artifacts excavated at Nuvuk, Walakpa and other North Slope sites.

This will involve cleaning (gently), sorting, marking, cataloging and preparing some items for transfer to a long-term repository. We will also be going through and sorting some frozen organic samples from an earlier project in Barrow that have been sent back from New York State.

We also will be attempting to find walrus bones in these collections for analysis at UAF. There is a possibility for student travel in connection with that project.

You do not need any prior experience; we can train you. Many archaeology crew members start as high school students. Once you learn how to do the work, scheduling can be very flexible. If you have skills in drawing, photography, or data entry, we can really use your help as well! Starting wages will depend on experience and qualifications.

To apply, send a resume and cover letter to Anne Jensen, anne.jensen@uicscience.org as soon as possible.  You can use the contact form below for questions.

Ramping up in the lab

I have gotten far enough along in getting over the back surgery that I finally have enough energy to do things that are not strictly essential for work or staying fed.  So we are ramping things up in the lab.

We are looking for a few more people to work in the lab here in Barrow, joining the current crew on weekdays or weekends.  Due to the source of funding, these folks will need to be high school or college students.  We are also looking for volunteers.  I will post the announcements on here a static page and also as posts.

We aren’t sure yet if we will have funds available to do fieldwork this summer, but we are hopeful.  If we do get into the field this summer, people who have lab experience will have priority for fieldwork jobs.

If you are interested, please contact me ASAP.  Please pass this on to anyone you know who might be interested.

 

 

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.