Kodiak dig unearths clues… and leaves questions

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Going into the community archaeology dig this summer, Alutiiq Museum curator Patrick Saltonstall hoped to find one of the oldest inhabited sites on the Kodiak archipelago. 

Alutiiq Museum curator Patrick Saltonstall holds up a collection of 3,000-year-old stone bayonet points found on Kodiak Island this summer [Credit: Wes Hanna/Kodiak Daily Mirror via The Associated Press]

What Saltonstall and a team of volunteers unearthed this year at the Amak site, near the Salonie Creek Rifle Range, was something different but no less important for understanding the people who lived on Kodiak Island thousands of years ago. 

While the ocean is about a mile from the site today, 3,000 years ago Womens Bay extended farther inland. The site would have overlooked a beach area at the head of the bay. 

Saltonstall said instead of it being a fishing camp or a winter site as he expected, artifacts gathered there suggest a temporary hunting camp. The site offers a glimpse into an aspect of the seasonal life of prehistoric Alutiiq people that has not been well understood or documented. 

“We found almost nothing but hunting tools — just big lances,” Saltonstall said. “It looks like people were going there with finished tools and hunting something. They weren’t living there, really, so it was a very distinctive site assemblage that says something. A very different assemblage than any of our other sites.” 

Instead of flakes created in the production of hunting tools, the assemblage contained only completed blades. 

So while not as many artifacts were uncovered this year as at previous excavations, the site yielded more hunting spears than all other excavations combined, in Saltonstall’s estimation. 

Yet with the excavation season over and lab work in progress, some large questions about the site remain in Saltonstall’s mind. 

The excavation uncovered a huge pile of rocks, and volunteers noted that a large amount of dirt had been moved from part of the site and piled elsewhere. This represents a great deal of work in a time before shovels. The reason isn’t completely clear. 

Another mystery came near the last day of the excavation as the community archaeology team discovered a structure that didn’t match the rest of the hunting camp. However, without time to do a thorough excavation of that structure, they reburied it. 

And there are signs that the camp site is associated with settlements from thousands of years earlier — but those signs have been obscured by later activity at the site. 

By 3,000 years ago, Saltonstall estimates, the site was no longer in use. Geological clues suggest a tsunami 4,000 years ago may have washed away structures. After that, a large ash fall some 3,800 years ago contributed to the bay receding toward its current location and the Amak site no longer being used in the same way. 

Author: Wes Hanna | Source: Anchorage Daily News [September 17, 2011]

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