Archeology in the Park An Aniakchak Journal
I always describe myself as a "dirt archeologist." Some archeologists work mostly in the laboratory, others contribute mostly through their writings and theorizing. I love fieldworkbeing outdoors, digging in the dirt, and discovering the often faint traces of our past. In the spring of 2003, Jeanne Schaaf, the head of cultural resources for Lake Clark-Katmai, told me about an opportunity to direct a multi-year archeology project in Aniakchak National Preserve. One of the most important pre-contact sites in the preserve, the "South Aniakchak Bay Village", was eroding into the ocean. The Park Service wanted archeologists to excavate the eroding site areas so that the artifacts and other cultural materials could be saved as part of Aniakchak's cultural heritage. As a new professor at Hamline University in Minnesota, this roject provided a great opportunity. I could teach my students field methods while at the same time we would make important discoveries that would help us better understand Alaska's ancient history. Two graduate students also joined the project, Ross Smith from Portland State University, and Linda Chisholm, from University of Minnesota. We began our fieldwork in 2004 and expect to finish in 2007. Below are excerpts from my 2004 and 2005 field journals. Organized into three topics (travel, wildlife, and excavations), these excerpts are meant to give readers a sense of what it is like to do science in Aniakchak.
Getting into and out of the field are always the hardest parts of the season. We have to move a huge amount of food, equipment, and people into a place where weather and tides rarely cooperate, except for narrow windows of opportunity. For the 2004 field season, we chose to fly into Aniakchak from King Salmon. The weather reports were not good when we arrived in town on the 27th of June. We waited two days before attempting to reach Aniakchak. Our pilot crossed immediately to the Pacific coast where he thought he could follow the shoreline while staying underneath the dense clouds. The "ceiling", however, dropped down to the water after an hour of flying, and we had to turn around when we were probably less than a half hour from Aniakchak. At $500 per hour for the flight time, by budget could not handle too many of these unsuccessful attempts. My journal records my relief when things went better the next day (and my frustration, when the weather delays returned).
1 July 2004, 11:20 PM,
Ross and I are here. Branch River Air (a local air taxi service) flew us out in one of their Beavers on floats. We left King Salmon around 3 PM, cruised down the Peninsula west of Becharof and the Ugashik lakes, then cut up through the mountains a little before Aniakchak Caldera. We had climbed fairly high, to 7,000 feet. That way we came in over the cloud cover. Reaching the Pacific side, we saw the coast was blanketed by what seemed to be a solid mass of clouds. I was a bit concerned that we wouldn't be able to land after all that flying. It didn't take more than a few minutes, though, before we spotted a break in the clouds. We dropped down through the opening and there was Aniakchak Bay. Perfect!
Unfortunately, we had to land in the lagoon, about two miles from where we wanted to set up the camp. It took Ross and me three hours of hard work just to haul our gear from the lagoon drop off to the bay side. Now we're spike camping on the broad spit at the lagoon outlet.
2 July 2004, 10:30 AM
I'm very thirsty. My water bottles are empty. Our nearest freshwater is a small stream about a mile down the beach. We're just hanging out in our tents at the spike camp. Nothing to do until we go get water, which we plan to do when the rain lets up a bit. The earliest we expect another flight bringing more gear and crew is around 3PM (at high tide so they can land in the lagoon if necessary). The plane will come only if the weather changes. Things looked good when I woke up this morning, but a solid wall of drizzle moved in about an hour ago. Now we wait.
7PM It's been pretty steady rain since this morning. We got a little break around 2 PM, but it only lasted long enough for us to get water. We actually walked all the way down to where we want to camp. It will be buggy, but sheltered. Saw a dead eagle on the beach and my first Aniakchak fox. It's now too late for a plane to come in even if the weather broke. Hopefully tomorrow we'll see an improvement.
The weather didn't get any better. Ross and I didn't know it at the rime, but it would be three more days before we would get all our gear and crew out to Aniakchak. All in all, a pretty typical experience when attempting to fly into or out of the Preserve. We decided for 2005 that we would hire a boat instead of trying to fly multiple plane-loads into the field. We were fortunate to find John Jones a commercial fisherman operating our of Chignik Lagoon. He and his wife, Colleen, both lifelong residents of Alaska, had traveled many times to Aniakchak Bay. John knew exactly where we needed to go and how to best get us there. The trip our went remarkably smooth, especially considering we had triple the crew and gear of our 2004 field season.
23 June 2005, 9AM,
I'm exhausted. Our camp is a disaster. We left Chignik Lagoon around 4 PM yesterday and arrived in Aniakchak Bay at 9:30 PM. It took less than hour to off load our gear, but then we spent over two hours moving just a portion of our gear pile up from the beach and on to our campsite. Linda and I started putting the Weatherport together (a large Quonset style tent) while the rest of the crew continued carrying stuff up from the beach. By 1 AM, I had everyone working on the Weatherport. We never got it up. The frame is out of whack. It was too dark to see how to fix it. It was raining and buggy and we hadn't eaten since lunch. We managed to get our personal tents up around 2:30 AM and grab a few granola bars then stumble into our sleeping bags. Now it's morning. It's still raining and we still have not eaten a real meal. I'm exhausted but we've got to get back to work.
11:45PM Well, we have our Weatherport up, kitchen partially organized, all our gear up from the beach, latrine dug, water filters filtering water, solar panel charging our batteries, and our bear fence up and running The chaos of this morning has been brought under control.
Time for a little backtracking to yesterday's boat ride. The trip from Chignik Lagoon to Aniakchak was a very interesting experience. We spent several hours in the morning loading the boat, the "Zachery J." John Jones had anchored his boat so that it was high and dry at low tide and they could run the ATVs right up to the boat. Larry McCormick and Donny Lind (residents from Chignik Lagoon and Chignik Lake) drove the ATVs. John's daughter, Shanda, and his deckhand stowed all the gear into the fishhold, so we had a lot of people helping.
We had to wait until 4 PM for the tide to come up enough to float the boat. Then we all piled in, along with Donny's wife, Ronna, and their daughter Natalie. I spent most of the trip up on top of the pilothouse. Although it was a little cold, I could see everything from up theremostly a lot of puffins and murres, but also three or four whales. For a Minnesota boy, it was an exciting experience.
Aniakchak Preserve, like much of southwest Alaska, has an abundance of wild animals. Many of my journal entries note the encounters we had with the various "residents" of Aniakchak Bay.
13 July 2005, 9:30PM (70° F),
Partly sunny today. It rained across the bay, but we were spared on our side. Winds are very light. Moderate surf from a two-foot swell is hammering the beach. Makes a thunderous sound. I'm wondering if we were missed by a big storm and the swell is the only sign of its passing.
An excellent and interesting day. I had my call with Nancy and Parker (I called my wife and son once or twice a week on a satellite phone). That always cheers me up. I tend to get grumpy in between calls. I made the call from up on the bluff edge overlooking the ocean. The view was spectacular. The patchy clouds made the hills, bay, and mountains look richly varied in texture and color. Dark and light. Rain and sun. Very beautiful. I saw all kinds of animals as I talked, including 4 or 5 Dall porpoises swimming from the inner bay to the outer bay; several sea otters; a sealwhich was right near shore and watching me; and out towards the outer bay, a couple of gray whales. I saw their fins and spouts very clearly through the binoculars. Add the eagles, sea birds, and jumping salmon and the bay seemed teaming with life.
1 August 2005, 11PM (53° F),
I'm beginning to notice a definite shortening of the days. It's very dark already. I'm writing by candlelight. Lots of bear activity today. We saw one bear four times10 AM, 11:30 AM, 3 PM, and 5 PM. The last visit was the most interesting. She came at low tide and had easy pickings with all the salmon stuck in the shallows down by the stream mouth. She caught several fish in a few minutes, played with them, then without really eating more than a bite from each, went on to catch some more. At one point she had just caught a fish when an eagle swooped down and picked up another fish off the beach.
The bear didn't really give us any trouble approaching the site a couple of times, but backing away as soon as we made some noise. She obviously had her fill of salmon and didn't really care whether she fished by the site. Eventually she wandered down the beach and started playing with a pile of dried kelpchewing on it like it was a big dog toy, then head butting it before falling over onto her back where her big, black feet swatted harmlessly at the air. Very fun to watch her.
2 August 2005, 8:30PM (56°F),
Light drizzle right now, despite the fact that the sun is shining on us, a little at least. Today's weather was actually fairly nice. Still SE winds and mostly overcast, but not raining and blowing. Today's highlight was the salmon. The creek by the site is so packed with humpies that the fish are literally swimming on top of each other. The bear was also around. Every time she'd get into the creek up stream from the site the salmon would all retreat down into the pool by the site. There'd be too many for the pool resulting in a splashing mass of fish spilling down stream until eventually a bunch would be pushed back into the ocean. There they'd be met by three seals and a sea lion. A reverse migration with unfortunate consequences. The scene is all the more impressive because of the large humps on the males. Their backs stick out of the shallow water making the stream look even more alive.
[We] archeologists excavate with great care and record very precisely our finds and our observations. Most of my journal entries are devoted to detailed descriptions of what we did on site, what we uncovered, and my impressions and working hypotheses. The South Aniakchak Bay Village is a complicated site with the remains of long abandoned houses, storage pits, and extensive deposits of garbage. We began the 2004 season digging through layer upon layer of garbage deposits, which we refer to as middens. The Aniakchak middens contain massive amounts of shell, mostly from blue mussel, sea urchin, clam, and snail, and usually crushed into tiny fragments. Next in abundance were the bones of fish, mammals, and birds. Scattered through out the middens were the occasional artifact of stone, bone, antler, or ivory. Most of these artifacts were broken and obviously intentionally discarded with the food remains.
28 July 2004, 11:15PM,
Gorgeous day. High clouds with occasional breaks providing us with some sunshine. Today's high temperature reached 69° F after a low last night of 50° F. Just enough breeze to keep the bugs down. No rain while we worked, although it was raining when I woke up.
We worked very hard today. Didn't stop digging until 6PM. We got N454 and N455 (two excavation units on the bluff edge) down to 140 centimeters below datum (about 70 inches below the ground surface). We excavated two distinct midden lenses. The upper midden was my favorite. First we found a thin deposit of solid blue mussel and sea urchin shells smashed into tiny fragments. The shell was on top of a layer of almost pure salmon bone. The lower midden had the shell and bone all mixed togetherincluding most of a sea otter skeleton and scraps of caribou leg bone. Since these midden layers are at the very bottom of the cultural deposits, they represent some of the first meals eaten by the Aniakchak villagers. It is fascinating to think about how they might have felt as they built their houses here and started to harvest their first fish and sea mammals from their new home territory.
6 July 2005, 10:15 PM (64° F.),
Nice evening, although we had an early AM rain and a heavy shower at 3 PM. Forced us to quit for the day. Tomorrow we will build tarp shelters so we can keep working if it rains again.
The highlight from today came from Block A where Jim and Kirsten (two of my students) each found a slate point (of a 'younger' styleprobably 1000-600 years old). Linda and her crew in Block B have uncovered a scatter of fire-cracked rock, apparently from a hearth. They also found a few artifacts including a bone wedge, a quartz crystal, and several large beach cobble spalls used to scrape hides, but no diagnostics (artificts of a style distinct to a particular time period). Right now I'm interpreting it all as part of a short-term camp created by a Koniag or Thule group. If true, then this is the best evidence for these people traveling so far down the Peninsula from any archeological site in the region.
Ross is working on a 1x1 meter unit on the slope east of the main dig. This unit has also proven very interesting. The upper layer of midden had all kinds of whole shellsas if tossed away just before the Aniakchak villagers abandoned this site (I'm guessing this since these shells were not trampled into little fragments like the shell in lower levels). Given the variety of the other animal bones in this midden, it looks to me like the last occupants were eating well. This evidence suggests that the site was not abandoned due to resource depletion. Whatever reason they finally decided to move away, it probably wasn't because they couldn't make a living in Aniakchak.
I find these speculations very exciting. To a degree we've answered two of our research questions"who lived here?" and "why did they leave?"
Excavating the midden deposits provided us with important evidence on the Aniakchak villagers' subsistence economy and diet. To learn about other aspects of their society we wanted to excavate their houses. On the surface of the site we could still see several shallow depressions indicating the locations of the pithouses used by the villagers. All that remains of these structures after l,500 years is usually just a compact dirt floor, perhaps a fire hearth and a few stains marking where posts had been placed to support the roof. Although finding a floor and defining its dimensions and shape can be very tricky, houses offer a treasure trove of information. Our goal for the 2005 field season was to excavate one of these houses. By recording the precise location of every artifact and feature inside the dwelling we hoped to learn about Aniakchak families and their domestic life. We had to dig over four feet down before we found our house floor. In the end, though, it proved worth the effort.
26 July 2005, 11:20PM (51° F),
A calm, but cool evening after a mostly wet day. Sporadic rain squalls and light drizzle continued today. Winds were occasionally strong out of the SE. Overcast skies and heavy surf would have made travel iffy by or by plane. Good thing we didn't have to leave today.
We had our "find of the season" today. Jim was digging in Block A when he handed me a tiny bit of "bone" to find out what it was. I cleaned it off a bit and found in my hand a small ivory maskette. I think it was made to be worn by a doll. We put it in rhoplex immediatelyso it seems to be stable and not deteriorating. Jim found the maskette on the house floor between 130 and 135 cm below datum. The floor in this end of Block A is very difficult to see. We've been finding lots of stone flakes (debris from flintknapping stone tools) and a little bit of bone, but few other artifactsnothing like the large number of finds at the south end of the house.
5 August 2005, 11:30PM (58° F),
Today brought a great end to our excavation. We dug the last bit of the house floor and the whole structure finally started making sense. The north end of the house, where we found the ivory mask, but few other artifacts, appears to be where the family members slept. The south end is where we found all kinds of features, artifacts, and animal bones suggesting that they used this area for their domestic chores (cooking, food storage, tool making, sewing, etc). In the southeast corner, they had dug a narrow drainage ditch (probably to catch the water flowing downhill. I'm guessing this because we also had problems with wet floors on rainy days). They had used this trench to discard or store a lot of stuff. We found eight or nine bone sewing needles, a fish hook shank, and several concentrations of stone flakes in this corner of the house. Most activities in the south end, however, were clearly focused around a large fire hearth. This feature was lined with clay and filled with charcoal and fire-cracked rock. Surrounding the hearth we found several storage pits and lots of fish bones. My favorite find was a small bone knife. It looks like a letter opener.
Near the end of the day I found myself standing inside the remains of the house. Although my crew was working all around me, I had a very strong feeling for the people that had lived here. I could see everything that we had dugthe pits and postholes. I imagined a fire burning in their hearth and the shadows flickering on the walls. I wondered about the people of this house. Did kids live here? Maybe the ivory maskette was for someone's doll. I imagined a family eating meals, sewing clothing, and repairing their fishing lines. Although I was a thousand years late, I was therein their house.
It was a satisfying moment, but it didn't last for long. There was activity all around me, requiring my attention. Linda was excavating the hearth. Gina was mapping the last of the floor units while Ayla collected all the plotted artifacts. Dave and Jim were digging the subfloor level and Ross was screening everyone's dirt. With so much happening at once, I just supervised. We stayed on site until after 9 PM and didn't finish supper and evening chores until 11 PM. We still have a lot to finish before the boat comes to get us. Tomorrow we'll profile and backfill, then Sunday we can pack everything up and break camp on Monday. It'll be a busy couple of days, but we should have plenty of time to get everything done.
Of course, things did not go according to my plan. I called John Jones on the satellite phone the next day to arrange our pick-up. He told me that the weather forecast called for gale force winds by Sunday. Our choice was either to have him come that day or we would have to wait until the storm passed. We chose to leave ahead of the storm. We finished the site work, broke camp, and loaded everything on John's boat by around 1 AM Sunday morning. Somehow this seemed an appropriate end to our field season.
Last Updated: 03-Aug-2009