You may not want to discover a piece of coal in your Christmas stocking, but this versatile material was once coveted on Kodiak. Artifacts from the island’s ancient settlements illustrate that Alutiiqs commonly fashioned coal into pieces of jewelry, including beads, pendants, nose pins, and labrets (lip plugs) of many shapes and sizes. To make these decorations, craftsmen used stone tool to break, saw, and carve chunks of coal into beautiful shapes, then polished their creations to a lustrous finish.
Where did this coal come from? There is coal available on Kodiak. A soft coal occurs along the southeastern coast of the archipelago in Kiliuda Bay, around Sitkalidak Island, and on the Aliulik Peninsula. Similarly,you can find a brittle coal on Sitkinak Island. However, neither of these materials can be worked. Studies of coal artifacts suggest that the material used to make jewelry came from Alaska Peninsula seams. How do we know?
Coal is a sedimentary rock that forms as heat and pressure alter plant materials. Scientists rank coal deposits based on their degree of physical change. The more altered the material, the higher its rank. Anthracite is the highest ranked coal, followed by bituminous, subbituminous, and lignite. By identifying the rank of a sample, and studying its character, scientist can link coal artifacts with likely sources.
Studies show that coal artifacts from Karluk and Larsen Bay are made of a hard, but pliable bituminous coal. This material most closely matches sources available in the Chignik area and Amalik Bay, coastal regions of the Alaska Peninsula accessible by kayak from Kodiak. The distribution of coal artifacts in Kodiak sites also suggests the Alaska Peninsula as a likely material source. Coal artifacts, and evidence of their manufacture, are common in assemblages from sites along the coast of Shelikof Strait, facing the Alaska Peninsula, but the number of these artifacts decreases as you move across Kodiak Island, farther from the Alaska Peninsula.
Photo: Coal artifacts from the Uyak, Three Saints Bay, and Old Karluk sites. Courtesy the Native Village of Larsen Bay, the US Fish & Wildlife Service, and Koniag, Inc.