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Friday, May 31, 2013

Back in Time-A Box of Letters

A couple of months ago my Aunt Barbie, my late fathers sister,  passed away. In the process of clearing out some of her things, my cousin Genevieve found some boxes of letters and pictures and asked me if I wanted them. Of course, I'd love them. Aunt Barbie was one of the letter writers in my life and I was curious as to what letters could be in the box.

The box arrived and I put it aside in a corner of my bedroom, planning on waiting for a time when the house was quiet and to myself. This past week, Nora awoke early one sunny morning and asked if we could open it. I said, "No, Nora, I'm going to wait for a quiet time to open that. Its old letters and pictures". That made Nora even more insistent and encouraged me to open it. So I did. There were bundles of letters in rubber bands and a moderate collection of pictures. Nora was fascinated.

I opened a few of the letters and read parts of them out loud. Tears trickled slowly down my cheeks and Nora wanted to know why I was crying.  I explained to her that the letters were written by my dad when he was young and reading the letters made me miss him.

The 3 letters I read were from my dad to my Aunt Barbie when he was in his early 20's. My father passed away when I was 16 and his writing is a chance to see inside his thoughts and mind; at such a formative time in his life. Many of the letters are written on a typewriter, single spaced. His style is reminiscent of a journal entry-really sharing his thoughts on people, himself and his aspirations for life.

I called my twin, Ella, and told her about the box and read a few sections of letters. We laughed and cried together at the chance to truly re-discover our father. Though his pen, his thoughts. We giggled  at a few of the things he said and reflected on how similar we are to him. We are his daughters and found comfort in our similarities with him.

Ella and I mutually agreed that I would hold off on reading the letters until we are together and can go through them together and perhaps organize them somehow. They are an incredible piece of family history to be treasured.


Thursday, May 30, 2013

Cliffside Bunkhouse

The past two weeks since Patrick has been gone, our house reverted to a summer bunkhouse. Before kids, we would take in lots of summer archaeologists and house guests and haven't done so much of it since Nora and Stuey have come into the picture.

The local Island Trails Network needed a place for 3 summer interns, so I agreed to them staying at our house for 2 weeks. Taking in unknown guests can be a a bit of a gamble, not knowing who will be in our house.

We lucked out with 3 thoughtful, helpful interns who are kind and playful with Nora and Stuey. Stuey took quite a liking to the intern, Nicole, after she showed him the game Mindcraft on her computer. When Stuey would go to bed, he'd ask, "how many hours until I wake up?" so he could play mind craft again with Nicole. I joke that Stuey needs a shirt that says, "I (heart) Nicole". We also have our friend Elke staying with us while she awaits the closing of her house at the end of the month. It is communal living-fun dinner togethers in the evening and a spirit of collaboration with stocking the fridge and cleaning.

Patrick and I head East to attend his 25th college reunion in Boston. The kids are staying back with a mommy helper and the pack at the house. I've looked forward to this trip since Patrick's 20th college reunion 5 years ago-to dance to 80's music, visit with his family and his cool roommates.


Visitors to the site

Archaeology is not all finding artifacts and features and figuring out the past.  A large part of the discipline is getting the word out about what you do find.  Scholarly articles, classroom visits, public lectures,  museum exhibits, tidbits on Facebook - are all good ways that the Alutiiq Museum uses to get the word out about its archaeological discoveries.  Through the Community Archaeology Program the museum also shows the public what archaeology is all about by letting them participate in the excavations - we also give a lot of site tours.

But it's not often that you get to give a site tour to a Senator.  Yesterday Lisa Murkowski - Alaska's Senator - visited our site.  Some members of the Old Harbor Native Corporation (OHNC) board came along for the tour too.  OHNC is paying for project.  I was very proud to show off all that we have learned so far at the 2 sites. I think they were impressed that we had learned so much about Alutiiq history at 2 seemingly insignificant sites.  I emphasized that in the past archaeologists have focused on excavating the big village sites and that the seasonal sites where they processed fish or lived at for just a few months of the year have received little attention.  Very little is known about those aspects of the prehistoric Alutiiq seasonal round.

I told them that in all likelihood these sites would never have been excavated unless threatened by the new Old Harbor airport extension.  Federal law requires that such sites get studied before they are destroyed. Lisa and the members of the OHNC board seemed genuinely interested in all that we had learned at the two sites.  They even had suggestions for other subsistence activities that might have taken place at the sites.  I really appreciated the opportunity to show our politicians and the people who pay for such work that studying these sites is worth the cost.

Lisa told me that she took an archaeology class in college and that for a short while she was interested in anthropology as a career.  I replied that she seemed to have done pretty well for herself in a different field.  Patrick

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Finished with the old sites and on to the new

More digging in the rain - opening up another 4 square meters of the house

Today we finished up our excavations at the 2 very old sites that we’ve been digging at for the last week and a half.  At 6000 and 7200 years old they are both very old sites for Kodiak.  The site we are moving to for the next four weeks of the project at 400 years old is considerably younger.  Hopefully this means we will not have to dig down as deep to find the surfaces that people lived on.  Over the last 6000 years repeated volcanic ash falls and silt flowing downhill had deeply buried the older sites.  We are looking forward to excavating houses where we do not have to remove ½ a meter of ash before we get to the interesting stuff.

This afternoon when we walked over the new site we could see the house pits and their siderooms right on the surface.  Clear enough that we can map their outlines without even any excavation.  One drawback of the younger site is that the site vegetation is much more intense – it’s an elderberry, salmonberry, pushki, nettle jungle out there.  The soil is still enriched from people living out there – all the food scraps, midden etc.  It would be a great place for a garden.  We plan on using a chainsaw to clear it up so that we can map the houses and set out a grid.  Still removing the sods and all the roots so that we can excavate the houses will be a real chore.

Since I last reported we uncovered another 4 square meters of the 6000 year old house.  Catherine found a perfect chipped basalt lance in the back of the house and Chase found an ochre grinder metate just outside the doorway with the mano right next to it.  We also uncovered many more of the holes that had held the posts to hold up the roof.  It was a substantial structure.  It looks like it had an open front and was dug in at the back.  It looks to be about 3 meters deep and 4 meters across, but we still do not know for sure because we did not uncover the whole thing.  If we have time we hope to return and open another 5 square meters to catch the other side of the house.

At the 7200 year old house we discovered that the Alutiiq who built the smoke processing feature had intentionally filled in the lumpy bumpy ground around with sods to create a flat surface.  We also found some blades – an artifact type only found at the very oldest Alutiiq sites.  I suspect that seal hunting was the subsistence focus at both sites, and we certainly did see a number of seals just off shore during the day while we were digging.  I can’t wait to see what we find at the new site!  Patrick

All done at the 7200 year old smoke processing site

The ochre grinder complete with mano in front of the 6000 year old house

A happy Catherine with her basalt point

Close up of the basalt point

6000 year-old house after excavation - we still do not have the wall on the left side and a little at the back

The elderberry and salmonberry jungle at the new site

The crew and view from the new site where we will be excavating

Monday, May 27, 2013

Growing Pains

Nora and I are on week 9 of her Seattle Learning program and last week we had some expected lows with fatigue and frustration.

When we embarked upon this 20 week program, I knew the days would come when Nora and I would struggle through the sessions, and sure enough-we did. These were the days when she had dance recitals and her last week of school. I was committed to keeping her on the 5 day a week schedule but it was tough.  I was also tired and my patience wasn't as strong. If she rolled her eyes at me, or if I sighed heavily at her, we became frusturated with each other and didn't enjoy the sessions as much as normal.

This week I discovered that Nora really likes having a Menu, where she can see the different
activities that we're going to do and pick which ones to do first. I draw out little pictures of the exercises so she knows what the abbreviations are for.

Tomorrow morning summer camp program starts, which the kids are both looking forward to. Its fun to be on the summer schedule now and do Nora's programs without feeling like it is too much on her brain after a full days school!


Crab Festival Bed Races-Best Costume WINNERS!

Our local Crab Festival has an annual tradition of bed races, where people join in costumed teams to push a bed down the road for a hundred yards or so. There are prizes for fastest bed, best costumes, and best bed. This is the 11th year of the races and 5 teams participated on the cold, rainy day. 

My friend and co-worker, Shoawna, from the Coast Guard base formed a team and before I knew it, I was on it!
Our team name was Four Mates and a Fin...we won best costumes!

Despite the weather, we had a blast~~~ 
Four Mates and a Fin--from Rockmore King Clinic on the Coast Guard Base. We won prize for best costumes!

Getting our bed in good position to start the race. 

Another team from a local medical Clinic...the Bald Eagles. So Alaskan!

The Rock Island Rollers-they turned heads with their bed! 


Saturday, May 25, 2013

More from Old Harbor

View on the way to work yesterday
The last 2 days we have had some good weather here in Old Harbor.  Yesterday was a brilliant sunny day while today it may not have been sunny but at least it did not rain.

The highlight yesterday was taking out the red ochre floor of the 6000 year-old house.  We used ¼ inch screen to find all the tiny flakes, and found that in the back of the structure the inhabitants had been doing a lot of tool re-sharpening.  We even found tiny re-sharpening flakes of the same material as the knife we found in front of the house.  Sugar quartz tools are rare enough on Kodiak that it is a good bet someone re-sharpened that very knife in the back of the house.  We also found more pieces of whetstone inside.  I bet all the pieces fit together.  In the next few days we hope to open up more of the house.  Perhaps we will find the fireplace.

Today we returned to the site we started at earlier in the week.  We almost completely finished with all the features we had started.  We did finish with the little temporary camp where we found all the brightly colored cherts.  We found 2 expedient hearths in the center of the activity area.  It really looks like it was simply a temporary campsite.  Perhaps just a fire that people sat around while on the move to somewhere else.

In our big block at that site we excavated the charcoal gravel feature.  It was not a house with a flat floor and walls.  But seems to have been some sort of smoke processing feature.  It had a sod-covered roof and we did find the old postholes for the wood supports that held up the roof.  The gravel in the feature was brought up from the beach and probably heated in the fire to maintain heat for drying some sort of meat hanging inside.  We found very few artifacts associated with this feature, but did find a nice chert lance of a style typically found in very old Alutiiq sites.  This confirms that the 7200 year-old date we got for the feature (from charcoal we recovered last year) is probably correct.

This is exciting because it confirms that Alutiiq people have been processing food for long-term storage for a very long time.  This may well be the oldest such processing feature ever found on the archipelago (click here for a write up about another such feature we uncovered last summer).  Alutiiq people at that time obviously were not living day to day on what they could catch or gather at the moment.  They also processed some food to save for the lean times when the gathering and catching was not so good.  Patrick

Chase and Sam map the temporary camp feature

Danielle shows off the chert lance that she found

Danielle and a small pit that had been filled with charcoal stained gravel

Chase and the 7000 year-old smoke processing feature - the 2 squares in the middle are old test pits (the smaller one from the 1990s and the one on the right from last year)

Excavating the smoke-processing feature

Uncovering the red ochre floor

Chase taking break

Friday, May 24, 2013

Another Rainy Day

Another rainy day, but we did manage to uncover a 6000 year-old house.  Yesterday I had thought we had a house with roof sods – and that is what we found.  I was quite relieved to not be wrong – no nasty surprises this time around. 

We uncovered a semi-subterranean house with a bright red ochre floor that had had a thick layer of roof sods on top for insulation.  Last year we found the floor of the house in a test pit and dated some charcoal from the floor to a little over 6000 years old.  I had remembered the date as 4000 BP (before present), but when we got home this evening and checked the date it was 4000 BC.  But while we were excavating the house I had the wrong date in mind, and I was a little miffed that we were not finding the stuff you typically associate with 4000-year-old houses on Kodiak.  Also red ochre floors are generally associated with earlier houses.  Figuring out that it was actually 6000 years old made sense.  It also means we excavated one of the oldest semi-subterranean houses ever excavated on Kodiak – what a pleasant surprise!  Parts of such houses have been excavated before but never a clear-cut, undisturbed structure.  Usually such houses are at sites where later construction activities have seriously muddled things up.

Our house seems to have been lived in for only a short time and people never lived at the site again.  It had a wide doorway facing the ocean and there was a quartz knife, a basalt flake knife, a pumice abrader, and a whetstone right outside the door.  Back inside there were a couple of ochre grinders in the back corner and a bunch of basalt flakes at the back.  Kind of cool to imagine a guy sitting out front working on things with his knives while he watched the ocean.  While inside someone else ground ochre and flaked stone tools.  We still have to remove the thin floor and so may find more artifacts.  The wide doorway – it may even have been open all along the front - with no sort of entrance tunnel hints that it may have been a warm weather house.    


We start to excavate the house in the morning

Uncovering the red ochre floor

Looking good

All done

Sam for scale - what a view!

Lunchtime walk to warm up

Quartz Knife from in front of the door

Basalt flake knife

Thursday, May 23, 2013

End of School and Beginning of Crab Fest

This time of year is filled with so much excitement for the kids; final days of school, the festivities that surround it and Crab Festival!

On the last week of school, St. Mary's hosts a very informal talent show. Nora mentioned it the night before but there wasn't anything in the newsletter about it.  Nora said she signed up to sing "You are my sunshine", (which she sang at the family talent show last summer in Montana).
Nora singing at school talent show

I forgot about it until yesterday at noon, I got a text photo from my girlfriend who happened to attend the talent show and she told me that Nora sang while the music teacher played guitar. I was so thrilled for Nora that she had the confidence to sing in the show and that the music teacher played guitar with her. Part of me was sad to have missed it, but then I heard how very informal and casual it was (with almost no parents in attendance) and I didn't feel so bad. Perhaps it helped Nora feel more relaxed to sing in the no pressure-no parent atmosphere.

Today was the last day of school and award ceremony, which was a tear jerker for me. Lots of the teachers are moving out of town this year, which made for some teary goodbyes.

St. Marys does a beautiful tradition where after the awards the teachers are up in front of the chapel and one by one, the students go up to their teacher. This is a chance for the teacher to tell each child a simple blessing or end of year message in a one on one setting. I sat there in the pews with many other teachers and parent, tears coming down our faces, so appreciative of all the teachers who have helped our children turn into the people they are. It was a moment in St. Marys time; a group of very special  teachers that will be all moving on to new places this summer.

Stuey and Nora with their teacher, Mrs. Jensen. Ms.Jensen was the one who got Nora and I started on her auditory processing program. 

Nora accepting the "Gold Award" For academic achievement in all areas. 

Stuey accepting "Gold Award" for academic achievement in all areas. 

Stuey with his teacher, Mrs.Nuno

After school...celebrating with Crab Fest!

Stuey, Estella and Nora enjoy their first time on the hang gliders! Love the  do', Stuey!


Digging in the Rain

Just starting to remove the sods

It’s been raining for the last 2 days here in Old Harbor.  Today we did not want to muck up what we had accomplished at the site I reported on earlier, and so we moved further out the peninsula to lay out the grid and start on another site we had to excavate eventually.  We had thought that we would not get to it until next week, but with the rain and mucky conditions for digging features we decided to go out and bust some sod and start in on the other site.  At least the shovel work would keep us warm.

And boy did we ever keep warm.  We mapped the site and laid out the grid, removed the sod and shoveled off around 5 cubic meters of dirt – all in one day.  We were exhausted but elated by days end.  But, it must be said, things did not look good at noon.  Under the sod was thick homogenous layer of weathered volcanic ash, boulders and lots and lots of cottonwood tree roots - thick ones that we had to use the saw to cut through and remove.  I was beginning to question if it was even a real archaeological site.  Maybe last year when Jill and I ‘found’ the site we had just been imagining a red ochre floor and charcoal at the bottom of a deep test pit (the charcoal was radiocarbon dated to over 6000 years ago)?  How do big boulders end up on top of sterile fill anyhow? (It turns out they probably rolled down from an eroding outcrop above the site).  So we cleaned out the old test pit and dug into the walls and there, indeed, was the thin layer of red ochre and flecks of charcoal resting directly on the glacial till.  But it looked so ephemeral, and there was so much dirt to remove.  But we persevered – digging on in the mist and light rain.

Eventually we did get most of the block down to a different layer of mixed ash that contained chunks of white and gold ash, and I expanded out the old test pit to see what I could find.  It looks like the mixed ashes might be a thick layer of sods used to cover the roof of an old structure.  And then just when I started to get to the floor layer I turned up a red ochre grinder.  A stone used to crush and grind the red ochre that stains the dirt floors of old Alutiiq houses a bright red.  We clearly have a site worth excavating.  Still how did the structure get buried so deeply in just 6000 years?  Did a drift of ash from a later volcanic eruption cover the site, or perhaps silt, ash, and rocks slid down over the site from the slope above?

We still have to figure out the construction of the structure, and even if it is, indeed, really a structure with roof sods (I’ve been wrong before).  But at least we now know there is a floor of some sort down there – a place where people sat and ground red ochre.  I’m excited to get down there to figure it all out – to get at the story of what happened at that spot 6000 years ago.

I have also posted a couple of artifact pictures from the first site we excavated at for the first 2 days.  All of the chipped stone from the younger occupation at that site has been of basalt or agate or imported from the Alaska Peninsula – clear chalcedony and brightly colored chert (but, it must be said, we have not found very many).  We have not recovered a single piece of the usually ubiquitous local red chert.  We have also found the usual split cobble tools made from greywacke and the worked slate fragments discarded from the production of ground stone tools.  One of the artifacts is a tiny chalcedony core that looks like it might have been a used up microblade core.  The other is a small chipped point made of exotic red chert. 


Getting into the roots

An ochre grinder and on a living surface!

Exotic red chert chipped point from KOD 580

5 cubic meters later at the end of the day. .. .

Chalcedony core - used up micro blade core?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Beginning of the Adventure

I have been in the field for 3 days now doing an archaeological excavation in Old Harbor.  I came down on Sunday with Chase, Catherine, Sam and Danielle, and we started to dig in earnest on Monday.  We will be here for 6 weeks and will excavate 3 different sites that are slated to be covered by an airport runway extension.  So far it has been a fun time.

We started out by cutting back the bank of the first site we will be working at to get a look at the profile.  The profile shows all the layers we will find when we later excavate from above.  It also clearly shows the charcoal stained lens that we found last year and that piqued our interest to dig at the site.  Last year we thought it might be an early Kachemak smoke processing pit, but radiocarbon analysis tells us it is 7200 years old.  I thought this had to be wrong, and closely examined the profile to figure out how I could have been fooled so badly.

And I think we got it figured out.  It seems there is an earlier component associated with a living surface we uncovered today at a different part of the site.  We are excavating two blocks on the site.  At the block away from the profile we did find artifacts that seem to date to the Kachemak era (ca 3500 years ago), and we also found this layer above a thick volcanic ash layer that caps our charcoal lens.  So people seem to have camped and used this spot TWO times in the past, and the old charcoal stained lens looks like it really is 7200 years old.  I believe it might well be a smoke processing feature of some sort too.  We have not excavated it yet, but it clearly is quite small and seems to be ringed by old post holes.  Perhaps it burned down. Anyway that’s what I think for now, and in the past I have been known to jump to hasty conclusions.  So we will see if my current theories hold up!

As to our field conditions and general crew morale I’ll let the pictures and captions tell the story.  Patrick

The flight down

Clean cut crew about to get dirty

On recon the first day

We start to cut back the profile

The profile with charcoal lens in the middle

Catherine and Sam examine the profile

Clean cut crew at the house after work

If you look closely you can see us exacting on top of the site

Lunch escaping the rain in the tarp tent

It was a little tight

After a hard days work