Community Archaeology 2011
In August of 2011, curator
and crew excavated the Amak Site - a prehistroic settlement on a relic shoreline of Womens Bay. The ocean no longer laps the front of the site, but about 4,000 years ago it was here and people camped along its shore. Patrick has been writing periodic summaries of the excavation. Follow along here to learn about site finds and interpretations. We are posting in reverse chronological order - scroll to the bottom to find the oldest post, or read the latest news by starting at the top.
Photo: Discovering the Amak site in 2005 with shovel tests.
The Amak Site excavation may be over for the year, but the lab work continues. In archaeology, the general rule of thumb is that every hour in the field generates 2 hours of lab work. And if you include writing up the results of the dig into a book or some sort of publication, then you better count on even more hours of work out of the field. Lab work and analysis is what I do at the museum in winter. And now it begins.
Not that lab work is all drudgery - some of the most exciting discoveries are made in the lab. In fact, yesterday when we were cleaning the artifacts, I was shocked to see what looks like a tiny Arctic Small Tool tradition end scraper that I never saw in the field because someone just assumed it was a flake. Arctic Small Tool tradition peoples didn't live on Kodiak, but we do find the occasional tool. This one is made of basalt, a type of rock not found on Kodiak, and was probably picked or brought from the Alaska Peninsula where peoples bearing this culture did live.
In the lab, the first task is to clean and catalog all the artifacts and samples brought back from the site. Each sample and artifact arrives from the field in a bag with its locational information written on the outside. Thus we know where the piece came from - the site, square and level where it was found. We also know the initials of the particular excavator who found it and the date - this latter information is important if I need to refer back to my notes and jog my memory about what was going on that particular day in that particular area of the site. All of this information goes into a catalog of the artifact collection for the site, and each artifact is affixed with a tiny paper catalog number that refers back to the catalog. For all time, all anyone interested in an artifact has to do is look its number up in a catalog and they will know who found it, and when and where it was found.
During analysis we can use the catalog to see if there are activity areas on the site- areas where we found many more of particular types of tools. What activities took place in a particular structure we excavated? Or we can check and see how the types and frequencies of tools changed between levels, or even, how the site compares statistically with other sites around Womens Bay. Do my impressions about what we found during excavation hold up to the cold light of statistical analysis?
Another task that we do right away is drying out all the samples - particular bits of carbonized wood (charcoal) collected for radiocarbon dating. We also pick the charcoal our of samples from the features and levels we want to radiocarbon date. We pick out the individual grains and chunks of charcoal and sent them off to a lab in Florida where they do radiocarbon analysis. In a few months they send back the results of their analysis and we know within a few hundred years when the tree or shrub that supplied the charcoal died. This helps us to have a better ideas of the age and relationship of different levels and features at the site.
The lab work and Analysis begins!
The digging part of the Amak Site excavation is over. We finished backfilling yesterday - refilling the hole we created. And for the last 2 days it has rained hard. I am so glad we weren't trying to do careful excavation. Also, this is the first year that I can recall that we did not lose a single day to bad weather. So let it rain - we were done digging.
Backfilling the excavation is a VERY important task. It is putting the site to rest for the year. Too often in times long past archaeologists did not backfill and would leave their excavation pits unfilled. Then the walls fall in. It looks terrible and people start to think archaeologists are slobs. I try to leave sites looking as they did before we started to dig. This is very important to me. It not only shows respect for land owners and the people who use the area,, but it protects areas of the site that haven't been excavated yet. Most archaeologists don't excavate an entire site, so there is still information to be studied. Anyway, it was pretty muddy on Thursday. It rained 2 inches but we got her finished. All Done. Now on to the lab work.
The excavation is nearing completion and we have already bottomed out on our main excavation block. Now is when we draw the profiles showing the different layers in the walls of the excavation. This is when we figure out the site's stratigraphy. Stratigraphy tells us what happened at the site - how each layer of soil is related to the others. Understanding the stratigraphy is probably the most important part of the site's story. Each layer reflects a different chapter of the site's history, and figuring understanding the stratigraphy puts all the chapters in the correct order. It's the site's Table of Contents!
So here are the chapters as I understand them now. If you look at the 2 profile pictures below, the top white layer is all volcanic ash dumped on the site during the 1912 Mount Katmai eruption (capped by everything that has happened since 1912 including a 1964 tsunami deposit associated with the Great Alaska Earthquake). Below that ash is a dark layer with a thin lens of grey silt on top. We called this layer Level 1 and it represents the soil surface for the last 3500 years prior to the 1912 eruption. The grey silt is from all the tsunamis that washed mud up the valley and onto the site. We have noticed in Womens Bay that all the landforms up to 25 feet above sea level have tsunami deposits on them.
CHAPTER 1 - Level 1 is also associated with the last occupation of the site, about 3,000 or years ago. The site was still right on the water but the ocean was probably receding pretty quickly. It was not a very intense occupation and we found just a few smoke pits and a very few tools associated with it.
CHAPTER 2 - The next layer down (Level 2) is a weathered volcanic ash deposited on top of the site around 3,800 years ago. We know this because at other sites we have dated layers both above and below this distinctive ash and layers below it consistently dates to around 4,000 years ago, while layers on top date to around 3,500 years old or younger. This ash layer is a bright orangish brown color and very soft. It is a pretty thick layer and appears to have been 'trampled' by people living at the Amak site after it fell.
CHAPTER 3 - At the Amak Site, when we excavated through this soft ash we often uncovered a thin gray silty layer on top of another layer of mixed up ashes/pebbles/till etc. After close examination I believe the gray deposit represents another tsunami deposit from circa 4,000 years ago, shortly before the site was buried by the subsequent ash fall. You can see the gray tsunami deposit in the middle of the profile in the picture below. If you look closely you can see that it is draped over the walls and roof of a structure caught in profile. Perhaps people were living at the site when they were forced to evacuate by the tsunami?!
CHAPTER 4 - Whatever the answer a mixed up layer capped by the 4,000 year-old tsunami deposit represents the most intense occupation of the site. We termed this layer Level 2A, and it is all mixed up because the people living at the site in the Late Ocean Bay era (4000 to 5000 years ago), in addition to hunting a lot of seals, moved A LOT of dirt and sod about the site. We still do not understand exactly why because the structures from this level seem to lack the formal built up walls you'd expect if they were using the sods and dirt to build houses. Most of the artifacts we found came from this layer, and most of the artifacts were bayonets or bayonet fragments like the one our intern Christy Roe is holding up in a photo below.
During the Late Ocean Bay era the people at the site often removed all of the soil and sods down to the underlying glacial till left behind by glaciers over 10,000 years ago. The glacial till marked the bottom of the site and is pictured in the top photo - all pocked with old post holes and the holes left behind when rocks set into the till were removed. But in places where the Late Ocean Bay era peoples did not remove all of the soil we did find older soils and even evidence for a far older occupation of the site. We termed these layers Levels 3 and 4 - CHAPTERS 5 and 6!
If you look closely at the right side of the profile picture you can see these layers. They contain bright orange volcanic ashes and are quite distinctive. This particular part of the site was also disturbed by ground squirrel burrowing in the distant past. If you look really closely at the profile you will see a thin black line between 2 thin white ash lenses. The thin black lens is charcoal stained soil and represents the earliest occupation of the site over 7000 years ago. We know this because elsewhere I have dated the upper volcanic ash to around 7100 years old and the lower one is even older - the black lens is sandwiched between the two and hence dates to the time period between the two volcanic eruptions.
We found very few artifacts associated with this layer - just a few stone blades/microblades and a distinctive chipped stone point - and since the layer is so thin and ephemeral it appears that this site occupation was not intense. Since later occupations disturbed the site so much we found very little of this layer and, at this point, we know very little about what happened at the site during this occupation. Hopefully, we'll uncover more of this layer next year and learn a bit more.
But for this year we are done digging - it's time to finish back filling!
The Community Archaeology excavation is nearing completion. We've almost finished the main block and have made good progress on another 3 by 4 meter block where we are uncovering some sort of smoke processing feature from the most recent use of the site - in the Early Kachemak. We continue to find practically nothing but ground slate bayonets. In fact, we've found so many that we often just put them into the artifact bag and don't stop to take photos anymore! Looks like a hunting camp to me.
A recent email from a colleague got me thinking about what it all means. My colleague commented that what we are finding looks like classic Ocean Bay II Tradition material without the chipped stone. His comment helped me recognize a bias on my part. I tend to assume that the artifacts people leave behind reflect their activities at a particular site. And this is true, but artifacts also reflect cultures - ways of making and using objects. Different societies make certain tools with their own particular style and even use different tools from each other. Archaeologists can sometimes examine the tools from a site and say who lived there in addition to what they were doing there.
Living on Kodiak where practically everything we find has been left behind by Alutiiq peoples I tend to focus on the Alutiiq culture, and forget that there may be multiple groups of people represented in the archaeological record. On the Alaska Peninsula, for example, pulses of settlement from nearby areas - the Alutiiq word to the east, the Aleut world to the southwest, the Yup'ik world to the northwest, and the Athapaskan world to the north brought peoples of different cultures into the same environment - at different times and at the same time. Sorting out the histories of different cultures there is difficult with archaeological data. What does this mean for the Amak site? I don't believe that Womens Bay had a distinct Alutiiq culture, or two groups of different people living on its shores at the same time. However, my friend's comment reminded me that the archaeological record is complicated. Not everything we find can be attributed to site function, though that's the way I often see it.
Archaeology is about creating stories and then testing them to see if they are true. And if you have ever been a part of any of the excavations I've led you will know that I am constantly coming up with scenarios to account for what we have found. I rarely get the story right the first time, and it changes and evolves as we find new evidence that either supports or contradicts my thoughts. This is sometimes confusing to people who think I am being wishy washy. They assume that archaeologists always get it right the first time. However, archaeology, just like any science, creates an explanation that changes and evolves with the evidence - slowly getting closer and closer to the truth as competing explanations are crossed out one by one.
But this year at the Amak Site everything we have found continues to support the picture I envisioned on day one of the dig - a temporary camp where Alutiiq people hunted seals. In the last 2 weeks we have come up with plenty of evidence to support this story and nothing to contradict it. This never happens, and I am a little worried that it is too good be true. I keep on waiting for the other shoe to drop and for us to find something that totally contradicts my assumptions.
On Friday we found a flensing knife and 5 finished bayonets - including 2 that had not been broken - and practically nothing else. I made a joke with Jill, the museum's exhibits coordinator, that we could create an exhibit of the dig and have the space to include every single artifact found so far. On the one hand would be a small pile of flakes and on the other there would be a bunch of bayonets for spearing seals and a couple of whetstones and abraders for sharpening the blades and straightening the shafts of the spears. It really does look like Alutiiq men brought tools to the site and worked on their gear while they waited for seals to show, and then successful, butchered the seals and took them back to another camp for further processing.
Still, How do we know they were hunting seals, and are we really sure it was men who were doing it? My point being there are still parts of my story that are based on assumptions and are most definitely subject to change. Also, there are two major finds that I still cannot fit into my site story. What is the HUGE pile of rocks and why have we found that most of the dirt was removed and then piled up on another part of the site?
The pile of rocks is not a structure (there is no living surface associated with it), and a cache still just does not seem right. April (the museum's language coordinator) mentioned that the Elders she works with often talk about building rock blinds to hide behind while duck hunting, and I kind of like this new explanation for the rock pile. Only perhaps it was a blind to hide behind while an Alutiiq hunter tried to lure the seals closer to the beach.
The redeposited dirt and sod is more difficult to explain. Without shovels it represents an enormous amount of labor, and it does not appear to be associated with a house or structure. Perhaps it represents Alutiiq punishment and a bunch of teenagers were instructed to make a pile of dirt? (this is a joke). Anyway, I have a feeling we will figure it out, and I am pretty sure that the explanation will add to and amend the site story we have so far.
It is week two of Community Archaeology and all continues to go well. We have not found lots and lots of artifacts, but the ones recovered support our interpretation of the site as a temporary hunting camp. I am very happy that we have found a different kind of site. If we had wanted to find lots and lots of cool artifacts we could have always excavated an Alutiiq winter village. However, the artifacts and features we are finding are telling a cool story about a whole different aspect of the Alutiiq seasonal round that has not been well documented archaeologically - the Alutiiq hunting camp. We are learning something new.
All the artifacts we have found continue to be mostly hunting tools. So far, there are very few flakes or tool manufacturing debris and no ulus or netsinkers (tools associated with fishing). It does not look like the people at the site were making tools or fishing much. This is surprising given the proximity of the site to the mouth of a productive salmon stream at nearby Salonie Creek. My best guess is that people camped here to hunt seals, and did not spend a lot of time at the site. Basically I think they brought finished tools to the site, sharpened and refurbished tools while they waited to spot a seal, and then paddled off to kill a seal and brought it back to a base camp - perhaps to the nearby Salonie Mound site we excavated a few years ago.
One of the big mysteries that we still have not figured out is a HUGE pile of rocks associated with the 5,000 year old occupation. It obviously took a lot of work to create, those are some huge rocks, but what is it? My best guess at the moment is a meat cache. I remember when I worked in Baffin Island in the Canadian East Arctic that the local Inuit would create enormous piles of rock over cached walrus meat to keep Polar Bears from stealing the meat (I also remember seeing the polar bears getting into the meat). Is that what we have found?
The first week of our Community Archaeology 2011 excavation at the Amak site is complete. And things have been going well. We have already moved so much dirt that it is clear we will have to open up another excavation block. I already have another area of the site where there is a depression that might represent an old house pit picked out. We also plan on doing some test pitting in the immediate vicinity to find other sites and get a handle on the local geomorphology (where the beaches were and how all the local land forms were created).
It appears that the site was a temporary camp 3 to 4000 years ago, and we found a simple structure associated with this level. In the older levels around 5000 years old we are uncovering a huge pile of rocks whose function has us all a bit miffed at the moment. Next week we hope to get into the really old stuff at the bottom of the site.
Back in 2005 when we first found the Amak site I caught all the student interns giggling. "What's so funny?," I asked. More giggling. Then one of our interns informed me that the two mounds on the site looked like Amak. Amak is the Alutiiq word for breasts. And he was right. The shape of the site resembles a woman sleeping on her back amidst the willow and alder. When I mapped the site there was no getting around it. And so the name stuck.
After 3 days of digging Community Archaeology 2011 is well underway. This year we are excavating at the Amak Site near the Salonie Creek Rifle Range. The site is almost a mile from the current shoreline, but 3,000 years ago Womens Bay extended a lot further inland and the site was situated right above the beach. During the last 14 years of Community Archaeology the Alutiiq Museum has been examining the Alutiiq Seasonal round in the Womens Bay area through time. Among other types, we have excavated late Fall fish camps up on Buskin Lake, Spring Cod camps on the outer coast, Winter villages, and Summer camps at the head of Womens Bay. We have excavated sites as old as from the 6th millennium BC and as recent as the 19th century AD. This year we hoped to learn what the Alutiiq were doing at the extreme head of Womens Bay 3-7000 years ago. We also hope to find one of the oldest sites on the archipelago (knock on wood here).
And so far so good. We know from a test pit and our excavation so far that the site has been occupied at least 3 times - once in the Early Kachemak period between about 3,000-4,000 years ago, in Ocean Bay II times around 5,000 years ago, and finally there appears to have been a super early occupation around 7,000 or so years ago. For the last 3 days we have been excavating the Early Kachemak component. What's cool is that unlike the contemporary and nearby site at Bruhn Point, Alutiiqs do not appear to have used the Amak Site as a fish camp at that time. We have found none of ulus for cutting up fish or the netsinkers used to catch fish - both of which we found so many of at Bruhn Point.
3,000 years ago the Amak site appears to have been used sparingly as a temporary camp, and the occupants did not leave much behind for us to find. But we have found a surprising number of complete hunting tools - a sideblade, a chipped stone endblade, a pumice abrader and whetstone, a couple of scrapers - and very little in the way of flakes and other chipped stone debris that would have been created if people were making tools at the site. My initial thought is that Alutiiq people at the site were bringing completed tools to the site from somewhere else and hunting seals. Perhaps they sharpened their tools as they waited for a seal to appear. The seals would have been up there in late summer chasing salmon up Salonie Creek.