Big information from tiny artifacts - by Mark Rusk
What happens after an excavation, when all of the artifacts have been cleaned, numbered, and logged? Researchers begin the slow but interesting process of teasing information from their finds. In 2010, the Alutiiq Museum conducted excavations at the Mikt’sqaq Angayuk, an historic site on Kodiak’s Cliff Point. Here, an Alutiiq sod house and garbage deposits preserve information about life on the shores of Womens Bay during Russian colonial days. Over the past year, a team of researchers has been studying site finds to learn its history. Glass trade beads are helping to complete the story.
Glass beads are a very common find in Alaska’s historic archaeological sites. These small, inexpensive objects were brought to Alaska in large quantities to trade with Native people for otter and fox pelts. Native people incorporated the beads into jewelry and clothing. For archaeologists beads are a helpful find, as they can provide information on site age. Also, glass beads can assist researchers in tracking trade between Alutiiq people and the Russians, Englishmen, and Americans who brought goods to Alaska.
The beads from Mikt’sqaq Angayuk include a type known as a Cornaline d’Aleppo. These beads are useful in dating an archaeological site because they are easy to identify and were manufactured at specific dates. This two-colored bead has a dark red exterior and an interior color of amber, clear, light green, or white. Cornaline d’Aleppo beads with a white center arrived in Alaska after 1840. Those with a different center are younger. Mikt’sqaq Angayuk produced has no white centered Cornaline d’Aleppo beads in a collection of over 361 beads. Only amber, clear, and light green centered beads are present. This suggests that the site dates to before 1840.
Since glass beads were used as a currency for trading, archaeologists can learn about the preferences hunters had for color as well the quality of goods offered to Alutiiqs in historic times. The Mikt’sqaq Angayuk collection suggests that Alutiiq hunters preferred Cornaline d’Aleppo beads. These beads represent 40% of the finds, followed by shades of blue (25% of the collection), white beads (21% of the collection), and turquoise beads (9% of the collection). Other colors present are: green, yellow, and brown (each 1% or less). Lastly, we can infer from this collection that goods arriving for trade were of recent manufacture. These glass beads were state of the art for pre-1840 and arrived to Kodiak Island rather quickly from Europe.
Photo: A selection of beads from Mikt’sqaq Angayuk, Leisnoi, Inc. Collection. Photograph courtesy Mark Rusk.