Alutiiq Museum archaeologist Patrick Saltonstall is used to working around bears. For years he has been hiking through some of Kodiak’s prime bear territory, coexisting with the big brownies as he studies ancient settlements. While Saltonstall has a healthy respect for these powerful creatures, he also has a professional fascinated with their behavior. What do bears have to teach an archaeologist?
It turns out that archaeologists aren’t the only mammals who enjoy spending time at ancient settlements. As the long days and warm temperatures of spring arrive on Kodiak, bears feed on tender green plants. Ancient villages have nutrient rich soils, fertilized by the gradual decay of age-old garbage. Plants thrive in these soils, growing lush foliage that draws hungry animals. Moreover, the deep, grassy depressions formed by the collapse of prehistoric houses make great bear beds, a natural swale for a well-fed bear to take a nap. As a result bears are common spring visitors to Kodiak’s archaeological sites, and a serious source of disturbance.
“Bear dig when they're feeding and making beds” said Saltonstall, “putting holes in archaeological sites. And while they hang out at a site, they will walk up and down its banks, creating trails that cause erosion. This sort of damage is particularly common along Kodiak’s large salmon streams. Bears waiting for fish to arrive hang out around archaeological sites, feeding, digging, sleeping and even fighting. I’ve seen sites covered with bear holes. Some deposits are so badly pitted that you can’t make out the house depressions any more.”
What does this mean for an archaeologist? First, studying the damage caused by bears is helping Saltonstall to fine tune his eyes–to tell the difference between a depression created by a bear and one created by an Alutiiq ancestor. Second, it’s helping him to understand the forces that alter sites. Decay and disturbance impact every site, but knowing how to recognize the signs of these forces helps researchers interpret their finds. And finally, Saltonstall has learned to approach village sites with a little extra care. Experience tells him he might encounter a snoozing bear in one of the old barabara depressions he wants to map.
Photo: Bears feeding on the shore of Karluk Lake, Spring 2009, by an area of recent digging.