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Thursday, August 09, 2012

Ancient Alutiiq Smoke Processing

Our 5500 year old structure as viewed from the back looking out towards what I believe was an open front and where they dumped rock and charcoal (and which can be seen in the profiles).

Today we backfilled the site - we are pretty much all done.  But the day before yesterday we finished uncovering what I believe is a 5500 year-old smoke-processing structure.  It was just over 5 meters in diameter and was dug about 2 feet into the slope.  The pit was dug down to glacial till which was a lot of work for people without shovels. I believe it had an open front and probably some sort of roof extending out from the back wall onto some posts in the front.  Today I noted in the notes from the first part of the dig that we found a lot of big rocks in the upper layers just behind what would have been the back wall.  Perhaps these rocks held down a hide cover that stretched out over the pit on poles and formed a roof.

Inside the structure were numerous hearths and pits filled with rocks.  I believe they were heating rocks to retain heat while they dried seal meat inside the structure. No evidence for fishing at the site - only hunting - so what else could they have been smoke processing?  On top of the 'dump' pile out front we found an inordinate amount of broken bayonets.  Perhaps they sat out front and refurbished their tools while they waited for the seal meat to dry?

What's cool is that the structure strongly resembles later Alutiiq smoke processing structures used to dry fish.  I went back through my photo files and pulled a few examples from previous Community Archaeology digs at the Outlet and Zaimka Mound sites  (see below).  All of them are round semi-subteranean features, lacking built up walls, with rock filled pits, and with numerous hearths inside.

This sort of feature becomes REALLY popular around 4000 years ago.  So popular that dirt in sites from this period is invariably stained black with charcoal from all the smoke processing. The nickname for sites from this time period is the 'Black' Kachemak because the soil is always stained so black.  But it is not like the Alutiiq did not know about smoke processing earlier or that they did not store food etc.  It's just that for some reason around 4000 years ago they started to fish a whole lot more and smoke process and store a WHOLE LOT MORE.  Perhaps the climate deteriorated, the sea mammal populations crashed, or maybe the population got too big to support with sea mammal hunting alone.

Our 5500 year old smoke processing structure highlights that at 4000 years ago smoke processing was not a new technology.  People knew about it, but they did not need to rely on it until around 4000 years ago when something changed.  It's also cool that at 5500 years ago the technology seems to have been used for smoking meat and not fish.  I'd kinda like to try smoked seal.


Another view of the structure and the flat area beyond was probably a tidal lagoon where they hunted mammals with slate bayonets - presumably seals.  Below is a crude drawing from my notes showing how I interpret what we found.

Below is a 1200 year old smoke processing feature from the Outlet site at the Outlet to Buskin Lake.  It had the same rock filled pits inside and an open front.

Below is a picture of a 3500 year old smoke processing feature at the Outlet site with numerous pits inside - the 1200 year old pit pictured above is visible on the right.

Another 1200 year old smoke processing feature from the outlet site with the rocks still in the pits.  Note that all these features seem to have burned down and charred their roof sods orange.

Amy Steffian in a 3800 year old smoke processing feature from Zaimka Mound on the coast.  The pits inside this feature were filled with gravel.

Below is an analagous structure from the around AD 1900 in the Aleutians.  V. Jochelson took this picture of a structure created to help dry fish.  Put a few smudge pits filled with heated rocks inside and you basically got what we've been finding on Kodiak (of course Kodiak's features are also round and probably had a totally different superstructure).

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