Getting ready to head to Walakpa…

We’re packing and should head down today.  Anyone in the Barrow area who wants to stop by to help or chat, or wouldn’t mind carrying messages, please stop by!  No connectivity, so no posts from the field–we are doing this entirely out of personal pockets and on in-kind donations from UIC Science & others.

In Kotzebue with no clothes…

…except the ones I was wearing (and a spare pair of socks I have in my field pack).  Alaska Airlines lost one of my bags.  Sigh.  It may not even have been loaded in Barrow, and of course they don’t answer the phone there, so there was no way for the agents in Kotzebue to check and make sure it got on tonight’s flight to Anchorage so it could get here in the morning.

At least most of the field gear made it in, so we can start work.  I’ll go buy a toothbrush & spare T-shirt if it doesn’t come in tomorrow morning.  I don’t have my steel toe boots, though, which could be a factor when we are ready to start monitoring.  I doubt I can find a pair of women’s steel-toe size 7.5 or men’s 5 in Kotzebue.

In other news, there is an amazing amount of fireweed blooming here.

Readers, would you be willing to help a grad student with her research?

I’ve had a request from Fleur Schinning, a graduate student of Leiden University in the Netherlands. She is doing research on archaeology blogs, and how they can help the public be involved in archaeology, and has a questionnaire she would like to ask readers to fill out.  I’ve tried to attach it here:  Questionnaire for blog readers.  It should also be available at this link:   

You can fill out the form anonymously, or if you give her your email she will be holding a drawing for 6 issues of Archaeology magazine.

Many Moving Parts

Things have been rather busy, to say the least.   I have been trying to work out a way to get the column sample at Walakpa.  For a few days, it looked like Ilisagvik College would be running a camp down there, so we made a plan to set up the camp and start the excavations, and then the campers would join us and be able to participate.  We were going to share logistics. IHLC is supporting the effort and letting one of its staff members participate.  Now it appears that the camp is in doubt, and we’ll find out sometime this week.

Since there is at least one person coming up to Barrow early to help out, another person who wants to help who is leaving in early August, and I am committed to a small project at Birnirk with National Park Service support (also early August),  I am having to come up with a Plan B.  UICS will let us use a tent and some other equipment, and we’ll just go down and camp, rotating a couple of people digging at at time and working as late as we can to finish as fast as possible.

If that isn’t enough, I’m working on several contracts, one of which requires trips to Kotzebue, Point Hope, Nome, and Wainwright, as well as work in Barrow.  It involves testing and in some cases monitoring.  The schedule for this just firmed up, and the Kotzebue work has to happen next week and over the weekend, since some of the work is taking place in the street and we need to monitor that excavation.  This is going to be a challenge with the weather we have been having meaning many canceled flights in and out of Barrow, the Walakpa work schedule and then the Birnirk work.

We also have some work that needs to be done in Wainwright, which was supposed to happen in the summer.  The only problem is that there are apparently no beds available in Wainwright for the crew, since the client (who was in charge of providing lodging since they own & run the camps) somehow forgot to reserve any!  Not sure how that will work out.

I’ve got two conference papers to give in the first half of September, one in Glasgow and one in Vienna, so they have to be finished as well.


Back to the Drawing Board

I’m trying to figure out a way to do at least a little fieldwork at Walakpa this summer.  I’ve got a proposal in for major fieldwork (3 field seasons) but decisions aren’t made yet, and even if it is successful, fieldwork couldn’t start until next summer.  That’ll be great, but there is a remote possibility that we could have another storm as big as the one that took over 11 meters of the deeply stratified deposits last Labor Day weekend.

Sites like Walakpa, with deep, frozen layers with good organic preservation can be seen as a special type of Distributed Long-term Ecological Observing Network of the Past.  In addition to the artifacts and structures left by past humans, these sites contain residues of human subsistence activities, in the form of stratified layers, often several meters deep and spanning millennia, of the remains of animals and plants gathered from the surrounding area. These remains are samples from past ecosystems that cannot be replicated, absent the invention of a working time machine.  A column sample from such a site is similar to an ice cores or a lake or bog core, with the addition of samples from a wider area.  It can tell us all sorts of things about the environment through time when analyzed with the right methods.  Information about how environmental change affected important subsistence species would be incredibly useful for those attempting to manage such species in today’s changing environment, and thus important to the food security of Northern residents.

Unlike ice cores, there is no elaborate infrastructure set up to collect and preserve such samples.  We really want to get a column sample from top to bottom of the site, just in case the worst happens.  It will only take a small crew, and maybe a week or so, since the bluff should be thawing in from the side as well as from the top, making excavation faster.

It looked like maybe it would be possible for the North Slope Borough Department of Iñupiat History, Language and Culture to run a camp there, which would have let students be involved.  I was writing a grant application to try for support for food, fuel and transportation to the site for that camp.  On Friday, we learned there was a conflict, so now I am trying to figure out another approach.  It is looking like it may need to be a volunteer effort, since most quick turn around funding sources don’t pay salary :-(.

If anyone has any ideas, or might be willing to volunteer to help out (digging, loaning camping gear, moving stuff to or from the site, camp cook, basic lab work afterwards), or would be interested in analyzing data from the site, please let me know.  This site is really important both a a part of Iñupiat  Heritage and a source of long-term environemtal data.

Back in Barrow

And just in time, too, since Fairbanks went into the high 80s on Saturday!  I had to get up around 3:30 AM to catch a flight to Anchorage to catch the flight to Barrow (definitely the long way home).  It was amazing flying into Deadhorse.  Water everywhere, and the Dalton Highway and some other roads gone in spots.  A whole lot of the snow in Barrow had melted too, but amazingly the roads are OK.  The Tundra Garden is emerging from under its snow cover, and flocks of redpolls have showed up to join the snow buntings.  I didn’t get much done the rest of the day except resting and a little mindless spring cleaning.

We looked through a huge number of drawers.  The older collections have little or no faunal material saved, so we needed to find worked bones, or in a pinch, artifacts  (preferably broken and non-diagnostic types with many examples) that were definitely made out of walrus bone.  That info wasn’t usually in the catalogs, so we just had to look. Some of the drawers were really full.

Drawers at the University of Alaska Museum

Drawers at the University of Alaska Museum

In the end, we have several hundred possible samples (plus associated caribou or wood samples for paired radiocarbon dates since marine mammals like walrus don’t give accurate C14 dates without a correction factor).  Now I need to figure out which may be from the same context, so we can look at them as a group and try to eliminate duplicates.

I’ve finished most of the bookkeeping paperwork that goes with any research trip, and will do the rest on Tuesday at work.  I hear there are a number of applications out for the internships, so I’ll be working on getting interviews done and hiring people as soon as possible.

In Fairbanks, looking for walrus

After a rather long, drawn-out saga, everything is in place and I can draw on funds so I can work on the WALRUS project.  The delays have been really frustrating for everyone involved.   Once I get the interns on board in Barrow, we’ll get back to going through the faunal material we have there for walrus samples.

We are trying to get samples from a wide range of sites.  Since the sampling is destructive, we don’t want to use artifacts if that can be avoided.  Ideally we want  unmodified walrus parts, bone or tooth, or if we can’t get enough of them, manufacturing discards.  As a fallback, we may wind up sampling things like shovels or bola weights, assuming we can get the museum’s permission, since they are common types of artifacts, and not diagnostic (or something that is likely to be displayed).  We currently can’t use tusk parts, since there have been no modern studies to compare their chemistry to that of bones and teeth, so interpretation of results would be problematic. (If any carvers would be able to contribute some scraps from tusks along with a sample of bone and/or a tooth from the same animal, it would be a really big help).  We are also looking for caribou or some terrestrial plant material from the same place in the site for radiocarbon dating, since marine mammals incorporate old carbon and the dates are hard to interpret.

More recent archaeological projects tend to have excavated faunal material in the same way as everything else, with decent stratigraphic control, and also tend to have brought it back from the field.  However, in the early days, that was not often  the case.  Even if material was brought back, it often wasn’t cataloged in any detail, so reports are almost no help in figuring out if there is any walrus to be had in archaeological collections.  A bit of walrus shows up in catalogs, but most of it is in the form of artifacts.  A lot of walrus artifacts (particularly bone, since ivory was clearly an item of trade) suggests that the inhabitants of a site were hunting walrus, so the potential for walrus parts to exist in the collection is there.

Many of the classic sites on the coast of  Alaska have strong indications that walrus were being caught by the people who lived there, but they were excavated decades ago, and finding suitable samples in the collections was not something that could just be done by getting someone to pull a particular bag or catalog number.  It pretty much requires looking through mixed lots of artifacts and bags of bones.  So I’m in Fairbanks doing just that.

We are mostly working in the museum, but it is closed on the weekend, so we got  permission to bring a collection of faunal material to the PI (Nicole Misarti)’s lab, and we went through it yesterday.  It took some doing, but we got though it, and should have plenty of samples.  It was an adventure.  We had 24 boxes, most of them full of bags like this:

Nicole holds a bag from which the bones on the tray burst forth when she took it out of the outer bag.

Nicole holds a bag from which the bones on the tray burst forth (like a scene from Alien) when she took it out of the outer bag.  Sadly, these were almost all ringed seal parts.  Other bags from that box are on the right.

Not all of the bags were correctly labeled, or at least the labels often didn’t specify species, just element, so we had to look.

We found a few other interesting things in the process, including this really large fish bone from Point Hope.

Really big fish bone.

Really big fish bone.

The other side of the really big fish bone.

The other side of the really big fish bone.

I’m pretty sure it’s some sort of cod (Gadid) but exactly what sort?  It’s really big.  If I have time, I’ll talk to the curator of fish, but the mission is walrus samples at the moment.

Summer archaeology internships

It took a while to get everything in place, but we are ready to start taking applications for summer internships in archaeology through Ilisaġvik College! They will involve learning about laboratory work and participating in some interesting and important research on walrus in the past.   It will help prepare you to participate in some fieldwork that we hope to have coming up this summer and/or next, and you can also earn college credit.

I’ll be in Fairbanks working at the University of Alaska Museum on selecting samples from the collections there for the next two weeks.  In the meantime, you can get an application packet from Susie Stine (852-0921).  I’ll be interviewing the week of May 25 (not on Memorial Day) so get your applications in.

This is probably best for people who live in Barrow, since there is no housing with this internship.

DNA results from the North Slope published!

When we first started archaeological work at Nuvuk, it took a while to find a physical anthropologist who was willing to work with the human remains here in Barrow.  Dennis O’ Rourke and his team were willing to do that.  Dennis came up to Barrow to speak to the community and the Elders to get their permission.  His lab works with genetic studies as well as skeletal material, and he asked if they would be interested in allowing ancient DNA studies on the remains from Nuvuk.  The Elders were not only interested in those studies, they suggested that the group undertake a program of modern DNA studies across the North Slope as well.   They developed a proposal to do just that, and once it was funded, research got underway, with resident of all seven North Slope communities contributing samples.

The analysis took a while.  The team traveled to all the villages to collect the data and returned to present the results to North Slope residents before they were published.  Finally, the first paper based on the project is published!  It is based on looking at mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited only from your mother.  It is present in many more copies than the more familiar (to most people) nuclear DNA, and therefore is often studied in archaeological situations, since all the extra copies make it more likely that some of it will survive.

The short version is that the modern DNA results support the North Slope as the source for the populations that migrated to the eastern Arctic, both the Neoeskimo (ancestors of today’s Inuit/Inupiat people) and the earlier Paleoeskimo.  This fits well with the picture from the archaeological data.

Jennifer Raff is senior author, with Margarita RzhetskayaJustin Tackney and Geoff Hayes as co-authors.

This paper has gotten picked up by a number of science news sources.


Edit:  4/30/15  Fixed a link that WP had put an ellipsis in the middle of the link.  It should work now.

In San Francisco for the SAA meeting

I’ve been very busy for the last months, although primarily it has been administrative things, many of them connected to moving my grants to a different institution.  It was very necessary, but also very time-consuming, depressing and annoying, and didn’t really make for worthwhile reading.  That’s more or less taken care of now, so back to “regularly scheduled programming” we go.

I’m currently in San Francisco to attend the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) 80th Annual Meeting.  I’m giving a paper in a very interesting Arctic session on Saturday morning.  The paper is on global environmental change threats to North Slope sites, and the urgent situation this creates with regard to the imminent loss of the archaeological and paleoecological information they contain.  Even some archaeologists who either haven’t worked in the Far North or haven’t been in the field there in the last 10-15 years don’t realize that things have changed drastically and this is a crisis.

Of course, this session is opposite a very cool IHOPE session into which it would have fit equally as well.  Sigh.  Someday someone will invent a meeting scheduling software that will minimize such conflicts.

Well, off to see if I can locate the early registration…

A day in the lab

I spent much of Friday in the lab, selecting items from Walakpa to send off for radiocarbon dating.  We had a reasonable set of samples from 2013 and funds to run the dates, but given that that entire area is gone, I wanted to get some idea of how old some of what was exposed this fall is.  That meant I had to make some choices about what got sent and what didn’t.

We had managed to collect several caribou bones, but most of them were ex situ (not in their original location).  There are also several samples of plant material from known locations which are much more likely to be informative.  Everything had been frozen as soon as it came in from the field due to the aggressive mold we had had to deal with last year.  For carbon dating, the lab needs to have a certain minimum weight to work with (varies by each type of material), which means that the samples had to be thawed enough to allow them to be split, cleaned, and dried enough to make sure that the weights were accurate.

Beta Analytic has got a slick new sample submission interface that I had never used before.  It has a few quirks, which meant that I had to quadruple check the submissions to fix things.  I got better at it, so .  In the end, it prints out a barcoded form that you put in the package with the samples.


By the time I finished, it was too late to mail the samples on Friday.  The US Post Office in Barrow doesn’t have any counter service on Saturdays, so they’ll get mailed on Monday.

As a result, I didn’t get to see much of the sun that day.  It is almost time for it to go down for the winter, and we’ve had so much cloudy weather this year, it was a pity to miss a rare sunny day.  By the time I had finished, the sun was down, and this was the view from the BARC.


UnPhotoshopped iPhone picture of the sunset


Call for Contributions—Alaska Journal of Anthropology Recent Research Notes 2014

It’s that time again.  I edit a column in the Alaska Journal of Anthropology which covers recent research.  I’ve sent copies of the call for contributions to several email lists, but it’s a very busy time of year and they seem to be a bit backlogged, so I thought I’d put it up here as well.

If you did something interesting this summer, please let your colleagues know.  You don’t have to have results yet.  If there are reasons that you can’t be very specific about where you were working, that’s fine.  It will still be helpful to others to know that work was done in an area if they are thinking of doing something there at a future date.  If nothing else, they will know who to contact for logistics advice :-)

A quick recap

This summer was unexpectedly quite on the archaeology front.  The non-profit through which my grants were run had some problems, which meant that work had to stop and I had to move my grants.  This turned into a rather long drawn-out process, with many fits and starts.  In the end, I was appointed as a Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology at Bryn Mawr College and the three grants on which I am PI (Principal Investigator) were moved.  We are still finalizing moving the purchase orders to allow for work to proceed on the WALRUS grant, but hope to get it done this coming week.

We had hoped to be doing some work at Walakpa, which had survived the winter unscathed, but despite the North Slope Borough asking for UIC Science’s Certificate of Insurance, which usually happens when a contract is about to be awarded (good thing, the insurance company charges to issue those things), nothing was issued.  Then came the first week in September.

I was in Point Hope monitoring the drilling of a geotechnical test hole for a possible fiber project.  It took an extra day to get there from Kotzebue, because the weather was so stormy that planes couldn’t land in Point Hope.  We didn’t find anything during the drilling, but the extra day gave me a chance to visit with Molly Odell and some other colleagues who had been working in Kotzebue and look at some of what they had recovered during their field season.  That was fun, but unfortunately the same storm really did some damage at Walakpa.

The site was undermined by high surf.  Mark Ahsoak Jr. kept me posted (Taikuu Mark) via Facebook message, and it was pretty depressing.   In the end, the house we were working on last year seem to have been entirely obliterated.  A big slump block broke off and is resting on the beach.

Slump block on the right, intact strata on the left. Notice the Visqueen on both sides.

I went down with a crew from UIC Science Logistics to evaluate it.  We found that there had been a lot more Visqueen under the surface than we had thought.   The stratigraphy is very complex, with a very large feature containing solidified marine mammal oil, some artifacts and what appears to be maqtaq at the landward edge of the slump block.

Marine mammal oil feature.

Marine mammal oil feature.

Unfortunately, the marine mammal oil feature is starting to break loose from the  main slump block and tip back into the crack between the block and the intact site.  We put driftwood props under it, and then stopped all work under the overhang, since it could easily kill someone.


Side view of overhanging block of marine mammal oil. Note crack on the left.

We didn’t find any loose artifacts, although there were a number of visible artifacts that were frozen in.   Some folks had been collecting them and turning them in, which is great.  I’d really like to thank everyone who has been helping in this way.  Unfortunately, some other people have just been collecting them.  Several of the artifacts that we saw the first day were gone by the time we returned.

After we headed home, the next day was spent in getting a crew and material to do some stabilization.  Several of the Barrow-based UIC subsidiaries pitched in with materials, crew and transport, and we went back to put some temporary protection on the site.  We were able to cover almost all the eroding surfaces with  geotextile fabric , secured with some cutdown metal support fasteners and sandbags.


Panorama of the site after the initial covering.

We made another trip down with the theodolite to map the new boundaries of the site.  This let us document the loss of over 33 feet (11+ m) in that storm alone.  We also put a lot more sandbags on the site, and so far it has resisted the weather.

Made it to Austin

This is the first long trip since I came home from back surgery.  It involved connections in Anchorage and Seattle.  I was lucky enough to score upgrades from Anchorages all the way to Austin, but I still arrived in less than ideal shape, although the trouble seemed to be my hip, not my back.  I went to sleep with an ice pack, and everything seems fine except my right big toe, which really hurts.  With my luck, it’s probably gout…

Anyway, the GHEA RCN steering committee, of which I am part, is having a meeting about a mile from the Hilton.  I suspect it may take me a bit longer than Google maps thinks to walk it, so I am heading out now.  My paper is tomorrow afternoon, so we’ll see how that goes.

NB: Barrow is a very expensive place

NB: Barrow is a very expensive place to find lodging and buy food. We currently do not have project funds to help with this, nor support for travel to Barrow. This summer’s work is probably best suited for people who will be in Barrow anyway, or who can get some support for this from another source.