Analyzing Early Driftwood Houses of Coastal Alaska

By Claire Alix and Owen K. Mason

Early indigenous semi-subterranean houses of coastal Alaska are traditionally made from a driftwood frame and whalebone, covered with sod and turf (Lee and Reinhardt 2003). Such houses are found on both sides of the Bering Strait and date back at least 3,000 years. In the 1950s, archeologist James Louis Giddings uncovered unique wooden frame houses associated with Old Whaling tool assemblages (Giddings and Anderson 1986) at Cape Krusenstern. These old houses were built using a series of regular upright posts with large rooms connected to small alcoves that were entered through short tunnels.

For thousands of years, driftwood continued to be an essential architectural material for these houses. The best-preserved archaeological houses are found on the western, northwestern and northern coasts of Alaska and St Lawrence Island. In the last 1500 years, these houses were associated with the Ipiutak, Birnirk, Punuk and Thule archaeological cultures. Materials used in house construction varied. The ratio of wood vs. slabs of stones, boulders and/or whalebone is related to available raw materials and changes in driftwood at any given place and time (Mason 1998). However, the use and incorporation of whalebone in the house frames may have also been driven by the importance of whales in those cultures (see for ex. Alix et al. 2018).
An excavation of a semi-subterranean house.
Excavation of a semi-subterranean driftwood house.

Images courtesy of The Cape Espenberg Birnirk Archaeology Project

Driftwood found on the coast of the Bering Strait comes from the boreal forest of interior Alaska, and to a lesser extent Siberia and further south. The three most abundant species of wood are spruce (Picea sp.), cottonwood (Populus sp.) and willow (Salix sp.). Driftwood logs are carried down the main rivers of Alaska, such as the Yukon and Kuskokwim. The trees fall from undercutting river erosion in the summer, or break off during spring break-up (Alix 2005). Once released into the sea, logs travel with currents, wind and sea-ice before being delivered to shore. They are pushed by coastal currents, prevailing winds or storms. Traditional place names identify locations associated with an abundance of driftwood. As reported by Wales residents, a place called Umiivik was well-known for its abundance of driftwood and people traveled there to find appropriate wood for umiaq (skin boat). (Raymond-Yakoubian et al. 2014). According to calculations by Mason, (1998:290) building a house would have “… required portions of up to 20 trees for walls, and a sizable number of other structural members, based on Giddings (1941, 1952 b)”. Driftwood was in sufficient supply as shown by its abundance in the numerous excavated houses at Cape Krusenstern (Giddings and Anderson 1986). There was probably less need to reuse driftwood because it was plentiful.
An excavation of a semi-subterranean house.
Semi subterranean house - East Room

Images courtesy of The Cape Espenberg Birnirk Archaeology Project

Recent excavations at Cape Espenberg within Bering Land Bridge National Preserve also show an abundance of driftwood used in semi-subterranean houses along beach ridges that dated back to the 11th - 18th century AD (Hoffecker and Mason 2011, 2010; Alix et al. 2017; Alix and Mason 2018). When embedded in the permafrost, the extremely well-preserved remains of these house frames provide information on changing house shape, construction techniques, and what seems to be a declining abundance of wood over time.

In the earliest excavated houses, driftwood logs were large and often unsplit. Logs were split for flooring or benches. Walls were made of large horizontally stacked logs supported by posts; log diameters varied between 40 and 15 cm. In later constructions, log diameters were smaller, and posts and other structural elements were more commonly split. At the same time, signs of driftwood reuse are more common. Wood identification and tree-ring analyses show that logs were cut and split to be placed in different areas of the house (Norman et al. 2017) and with time, the use of willow and poplar increased over spruce as major structural elements. For example, in the youngest excavated house, the frame of the tunnel is built with small diameter (ca. 11 cm) and mostly split upright posts rather than horizontal full logs (see also Méreuze 2015).
Images depicting different cut marks from two house tunnels at Cape Espenberg.
Cut marks on posts from two house tunnels at Cape Espenberg.

Images courtesy of The Cape Espenberg Birnirk Archaeology Project

Cut marks on the driftwood are extremely well-preserved on the surface of posts and logs which allow for analyzing woodworking techniques. Adze blades of metamorphic rocks, jade and metal were used, sometimes together, in the same house. Between two pre-contact houses built around AD 1475-1685 and AD 1675-1780 respectively, cut marks show that the younger house builders had more regular or easy access to large metal blades to shape the base of their house tunnel posts than earlier builders (Méreuze and Alix 2016).

The preservation of driftwood at these coastal sites in Alaska and in the Arctic is unique for archaeology, and reflects a long knowledge of the material and accomplished craftsmanship (Alix 2016). The excavation and detailed recording and analysis is necessary to better understand changes in access to and availability of driftwood and the change or continuity of preferential choices and wood technology through time.
This research is funded by the National Science Foundation, Arctic Social Program - Grants # ARC-1523160 to C. Alix & N.H. Bigelow at the University of Alaska Fairbanks [AQC]; ARC-0755725 to J.F. Hoffecker & O.K. Mason and ARC-1523205 to O.K. Mason at the University of Colorado Boulder [INSTAAR] and by a grant from the Archaeology Commission of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs to C. Alix at Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne
Cited references

Alix, Claire
2005 Fieldnotes - Cape Woolley and King Island Project. Note de Terrain en possession de l’auteur.

2016 A Critical Resource: Wood use and technology in the North American Arctic. Edited by T. Max Friesen and Owen K Mason. The Oxford Handbook of the Prehistoric Arctic:109–129. DOI:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199766956.013.12.

Alix, Claire, and O.K. Mason
2018 Birnirk Prehistory and the emergence of Inupiaq culture in northwestern Alaska - Archaeological and Anthropological perspectives - Field Investigation at Cape Espenberg 2017. Unpublished Annual Report to the National Park Service US Department of the Interior. Fairbanks, Alaska.

Alix, Claire, Owen K. Mason, and Lauren E. Y. Norman
2018 Whales, wood and baleen in northwestern Alaska - Reflection on whaling through wood and boat technology at the Rising Whale site. In Whale on the Rock II, pp. 41–68. Ulsan Petroglyph Museum. Ulsan Petroglyph Museum, Ulsan Metropolitan City, South Korea.

Alix, Claire, Owen K Mason, Lauren E.Y. Norman, Nancy H. Bigelow, and Chris V. Maio
2017 Birnirk prehistory and the emergence of the Inupiaq culture in northwestern Alaska - archaeological and anthropological perspectives - Field investigations at Cape Espenberg, 2016Unpublished Annual Report to the National Park Service US Department of the Interior. University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Giddings, James Louis
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1952 The Arctic woodland culture of the Kobuk River. University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Giddings, James-Louis, and Douglas D. Anderson
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Hoffecker, John F, and Owen K Mason
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Mason, Owen K.
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Méreuze, Rémi
2015 La construction de la maison 33 du cap Espenberg, nord-ouest de l’Alaska, au XVIIIe siècle. Les Nouvelles de l’Archéologie 141:19–25.

Méreuze, Rémi, and Claire Alix
2016 Identifier des techniques de travail du bois chez les Inuit grâce à la photogrammétrie et la réalité virtuelle. Les Nouvelles de l’Archéologie 146:33–39.

Norman, Lauren E.Y., T. Max Friesen, Claire Alix, Michael J.E. O’Rourke, and Owen K Mason
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Raymond-Yakoubian, Julie, Yury Khokhlov, and Anastasiya Yarzutkina
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Bering Land Bridge National Preserve

Last updated: January 26, 2022