A Day of Archaeology at the Top of the World

The Day of Archaeology 2012 started the way every other day this week did, in the lab.  Unlike the past seven summers, the Nuvuk Archaeology Project is spending a good bit of the summer in the lab.  We have been digging at a furious pace over those summers, because Nuvuk, site of a village occupied from Thule times through contact and up until the 20th century, the associated cemetery, and, it turns out, an Ipiutak occupation 500 km north of any previously known,is eroding at an average rate of 6 meters per year, up from an average of just over 3 meters per year around 1950.  All that digging has resulted in quite a mountain of artifacts and faunal material.  The individuals recovered from the burials are analyzed and reburied in the Barrow cemetery, but the other items remain.

We don’t take a lot of weather days during the short summers, so lab work mostly happens on weekends during the school year.  The Nuvuk crew is mostly made up of local high school students, augmented by undergraduate and grad students in summer, and they have full school days and often sports commitments as well.  As a result, we haven’t been able to process (clean, mark, catalog) everything before the next field season begins.  I decided that we should use the remaining project funds to make sure that was done and done properly. Thus, lab work.

Our crew was fairly small today.  One person who started the summer with us got a more or less permanent job, and another was offered 4 years of summer internships in the field she hopes to go into after college, and a  third just got married on Tuesday!

Trace, Kyle and Coby hard at work in the lab, cataloging Nuvuk artifacts.

Trace showing everyone a really nice whalebone pick head he is about to catalog.

Victoria takes a turn at data entry. All those catalog sheets have to be entered into the existing catalog, created in the field when we record proveniences with the theodolite.

We also have a volunteer working in the lab.  Becca Connor is an intern with the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium.  She’s also interested in socio-natural systems, particularly the possible effects of environmental change on subsistence.  She’s in the process of pulling samples of faunal material from a midden at Pingusugruk, a bit down the coast from Barrow, that was excavated with very good provenience data for faunal material.  I’ve picked a couple of units that seem to contain faunal material from the top of the midden to the bottom and don’t seem to have anything usual happening, and she’s going to ID that with my help and see if any changes are apparent.  The house the midden was associated with was abandoned & reoccupied, so we’re hopeful.

Becca asking what to do with the Styrofoam peanuts that the bags of faunal material were packed in for shipping (it was excavated in the 1990s.)

The morning passed with bags being opened, their information checked against the catalog, and the contents being sorted and cataloged.  We are using archival paper labels that we adhere with an Arcyloid solution, so that happens as another step to reduce the exposure to acetone fumes.  We do it under an extractor, so only 1-2 people can work on it, and it has to happen on the bench Becca is using.  I don’t allow materials from more than one site on a bench at a time.  Less chance of confusion that way.

The afternoon was very different.  The final nalukataq (whaling feast) of the year was being held in Barrow, so we took the afternoon off so everyone could attend.  The 5 successful captains set up a windbreak on the nalukataq grounds, and anyone and everyone is welcome to come, get fed and take some home.  The way the Iñupiat see it, the captains & crews don’t catch the whales, the individual whales have chosen to give themselves to the individual captains, who are expected to take very good care of the whale and share as much as possible out of respect for the whale. Prayers of thanksgiving are said before every round of servings.

It starts with soup (usually with bread & such) around noon, then mikiaq (fermented meat, blubber, blood & so forth) around 3 PM.  It’s very tasty when made right, and no odder than moldy lumps of curdled milk with veins of mold running through it, AKA a nice ripe Stilton.  Around 6PM there is quaq (frozen whale meat) and frozen muktuk (whale skin with some blubber attached, which is both delicious and incredibly warming on a cold day).  There is almost always a sort of dried fruit stew, apples & oranges, and if the captains and/or their wives have been able to arrange it, often special treats like frozen fish or akutaq (AKA Eskimo ice cream).

I was a bit late because I got caught up in another issue, so I missed the first course, the goose soup.  I did get there in time for mikiaq, and got 2 rounds.  The first I had some of right there with the folks I was sitting with, and it was very tasty indeed.  Unfortunately, I forgot my camera & had to use my phone, so the pictures aren’t the best.

Tails and flippers set out at nalukataq for visitors to help themselves. Flags of some of the whaling captains who are hosting this nalukataq fly above the windbreak in the background.

The blanket is at the left, with kids on it between servings. Adults don’t go on it until the evening.

One thing I love about Nalukataqs is that there are always some little kids in pretty parkas playing in the sand & gravel between servings.  They just get into their own little worlds there amid all the people.

Little girl playing in the sand.

Girl playing in the gravel next to the blanket, which is on the ground at the moment.

With five crews hosting (and therefore 5 whales to share), there was a mountain of meat and muktuk.  Crews bring it from the ice cellars just before it is served.  Most of them brought in trucks, and one crew actually got a front end loader and stacked the boxes of whale in the bucket to bring them over.

Meat and muktuk being brought from the ice cellars.

Then it was shared with everyone…  There were people from other villages, at least as far away as the Kotzebue region, and people who live in Anchorage and Fairbanks, and they will take their whale home and share it even farther.

That isn’t all of the whale.  Similar amounts will be shared by these captains at the Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts, they will share on special occasions.  Of course, crew members and those who helped tow and butcher the whale already got shares when the whale was taken, and they will be sharing that throughout the year too.

Going to Nalukataq may not sound like archaeology, but whaling has been the organizing focus of this culture since before most of the sites I work on were formed.  I really don’t see how one can expect to interpret these sites without a pretty good understanding of what whaling actually entails.

Alaskan Archaeological Adventures in Digital Terrain Analysis

Sarah here. I am just getting this post in right at the last minute (so mind my grammar) but I thought I’d contribute and support this day because Jess is one of my dearest friends and I couldn’t have survived my M.Sc. in Archaeological Computing at Southampton without her! Anyway I will stop being gushy and tell you a bit about what I have been working on up here in ALASKA!

A client of ours last year asked for an “archaeological probability model” to assess the potential for discovering cultural resources within a proposed 2000 foot wide by 116 mile road through the Northern Brooks Range and North Slope of Alaska (way above the Arctic Circle). I will not go into the debates about predictive modeling in this blog but as you may know these models have definite pros and cons. This model was to accompany approximately 65 days of archaeological survey field work in the summer of 2010 (we are just now getting funding to continue this summer). This road is being proposed through a remote area where the Alaska Natives still rely heavily on caribou and seasonal fishing trips (for those of you who are familiar with Lewis Binford’s work, god rest his soul, he studied the Nunamiut or Inland Eskimo quite intensively and this project is within their traditional territory). The road is being designed to open up oil and gas fields (sigh).

So I decided to get in contact with a college of mine in Alberta, Canada who is well versed in archaeological predictive/potential modeling. He has been using available high resolution DEMs (digital terrain models) produced by Light Detecting and Ranging (LiDAR) elevation data to perform digital terrain analysis and multi-criteria analysis to construct archaeological potential (suitability) models. So I decided to give it a shot seeing as we had a LiDAR DEM!
To accomplish this task, I utilized terrain analysis (LandSerf©) to highlight two types of landforms with a higher potential for the presence of archaeological sites. These two landforms are level areas near terrain breaks (such as terrace breaks-in-slope), and ridges. I selected these landforms because they are consistent with observations concerning site location made by archaeologists in northern Alaska. I then ranked the archaeological potential of these landforms based on proximity to higher order streams (fish bearing rivers are the highest) using a multi-criteria analysis (IDRISI©).
So now I am working on a field survey plan to test the model this summer. I am not nearly done and there is a chance the helicopter is going to be ready to take us out there next week! Oh boy, I’d better get after it!

Tracking Ice Age Mammoths

In my last post, I talked about the main project I’m currently working on, which is studying the stone tools made by the last Neanderthals at the site of La Cotte de St Brelade, Jersey. This collapsed cave site is well-known not only for the richness of its deposits, but also for the famous ‘bone heaps’ of woolly mammoth and woolly rhinoceros remains found in the 1960s-70s excavations. These have been interpreted as the remains of a mass-kill by early Neanderthals driving herds off the cliffs into the ravine.

Standing below the site of La Cotte de St Brelade. The rock arch in shadow opens out into the ravine.

Another project I am working on today is aimed at testing this theory, as well as providing rare information about the migratory behaviour of ice age megafauna. These are the large, often formidable beasts that lived alongside the last Neanderthals: mammoth and woolly rhino, giant deer, horse, bison and the extinct ancestors of  today’s domesticated cows.

In 2010 I set up a project with Geoff Smith and Sarah Viner that uses isotopic analysis of ancient teeth to determine mobility of Pleistocene megafauna.  The Pleistocene covers roughly the million years before the end of the last ice age, but at the moment we are focusing on investigating sites during the time of the Neanderthals, which is mid-late Pleistocene. Our first site is La Cotte de St Brelade, Jersey, which we are working on with the Quaternary Archaeology and Environments of Jersey project. We can use the Strontium isotopes present in an individuals’ teeth to determine their movements over different periods. Simply put, we can find out if an animal whose remains ended up at La Cotte had spent time in other regions of the landscape. Isotopic analysis works based on how different geology affects the levels of Strontium isotopes present in drinking water, which gets laid down in animals’ and peoples’ teeth.

This kind of direct measure of animal (and human) mobility is still quite rare for this period, although one Neanderthal from Lakonis in Greece has been published. We want to understand how animals that Neanderthals were hunting were moving around: for example, were mammoths great travellers as African elephants today can be? And were Pleistocene reindeer going on vast annual migrations as we can see in herds from Alaska in modern times? This information will help build models about how Neanderthals may have been following or intercepting megafauna at various points in the landscape. As Neanderthal fossils themselves are so precious, it’s unlikely we will be able to directly measure the mobility of many more individuals for some time. Until then, we can use animal movements to provide a framework alongside other measures for Neanderthal mobility such as transport of stone tools. At La Cotte, we may also be able to test whether the bone heaps are really mass-kills by determining if the bones represent  herds that had moved around together, and then were killed in one event.

With some of the La Cotte de St Brelade collections, Jersey Museum.

We received funding this year from the Societe Jersiaise, the island of Jersey’s learned society, to do pilot analysis on six samples of mammoth and horse teeth, which Sarah will be undertaking very soon. Today I am working on finding more funding to allow us to increase the number of samples from the site. This involves trawling various websites of funding bodies to see whether we are eligible or not for different grants. We’re in a difficult situation, as only one of us (Sarah) currently has a Postdoc, and is therefore affiliated to an Institution, which rules us out of a lot of grants. At the same time, current Postdocs are ineligible to apply for other kinds of funding, meaning that early career researchers in our position really struggle to get projects off the ground independently.

We are hopeful however that the pilot study will provide positive results which will allow us to apply for more extended funding from particular sources, and keep building up the project profile while I apply for Postdoc funding separately.

My last post for today will be a round-up of the other things I’ve been working on, including writing a funding application to work on a French project on Neanderthal landscape use.