Every artifact tells a story. That’s what I reminded Patrick Saltonstall as we stared down at the overflowing tubs of net sinkers from our first year’s excavation at the Outlet site. We recovered over 4,200 of these artifacts, each an oval, water-worn pebble with a notch chipped at both ends. Like the lead line on a modern seine, these stone tools helped fishermen hold their nets down and open in the adjacent waters of the Buskin River.
“We must have dug in a net storage area!” said Patrick. “What will we do with all these sinkers?” Intrigued, I made a suggestion. “Well, we could measure them to see if there are specific sizes in the collection. Maybe there were different sized nets for different types of salmon, or even birds,” I said. Then I started to wonder. “What if we examined the stones in the river today, to see what’s actually available. That might tell us whether people were picking up particular stones, or just what they could get. Maybe the size of these net sinkers is just a reflection of the stones that were out there and people adapted their nets to use them.”
At the time we both presumed that the thousands of palm-sized sinkers were made from stones collected right there by the site, from the riverbed. They were water-worn after all, and recovered from our trenches along the river’s edge. Plus there were so many of them. Experience told us that something so common, and heavy, was likely to be made of a material immediately available. Presumption is one of the most dangerous paths for archaeologists, and we were walking right down it.
Patrick gave me a funny look, but the next summer he worked with a group of student to inspect the palm-sized stones in the river flanking the site. Laughing, he called me to report their finds.
Patrick: “Guess what?”
Amy: “You found more net sinkers?”
Patrick: “No! We found rocks that look nothing like sinkers. There aren’t any net sinker sized pebbles of slate or greywacke in the upper Buskin.”
Amy: “People collected them all two thousand years ago?”
Patrick: “No. The river’s meandered a bit. We’d have found some if they occurred naturally. I think the sinkers at the Outlet site are made of wave rounded pebbles, from the coast!”
That was the answer. A quick review of the beaches flanking nearby Womens Bay supported Patrick’s idea. There were ample quantities of pebbles matching the size, material, and smoothness of the stones in our sinker collection. The sinkers, the most common, humble artifact, weren’t made at the Outlet site, but carried at least fours miles to the site – in heavy, impressive quantities. These sinkers weren’t just evidence of fishing technique, they were a broader record of people’s activities.
We now hypothesize that people manufactured their nets on the coast, transporting them inland for use at this riverside camp. How did they do it? The nets could simply have been carried inland, but perhaps people put them in kayaks and paddled or towed their boats up the river. We know believe that almost everything found in the site came from the coast. Fragments of mussel shell and leaves of slate used to manufacture lances, are among the other finds that don't have an immediate origin.
This interesting discovery now has us thinking about fishing on some of Kodiak’s larger salmon streams. Did people carry nets many miles up the longer Karluk or Ayakulik rivers, where settlements abound? If people had a wealth of beach pebbles to select from, do the sizes of net sinkers tell us about their fishing practices? What else might have been carried inland from the coast – logs for house building? What might we learn if we considered the materials that were immediately available to site residents? The answers lie in artifacts, sites, and environments waiting to be studied; perhaps even the many pounds of sinkers recovered from the Outlet site.