Digging history at KPC

Posted: Friday, January 05, 2001

Anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College is no sterile, bookish exercise. It gets down and dirty, and the students love it that way.

Last summer, students took part in an exciting excavation in Soldotna within sight of the campus, under the guidance of Professor Alan Boraas.

"This is all real," said Joey Girves, who served as a graduate teaching assistant at the dig and spoke about the results at Thursday's campus open house.

The students and community volunteers worked on an ancient village site on the banks of the Kenai River. They estimated it was about 1,500 years old and had about 100 habitants.

The villagers were part of the mysterious Riverine Kachemak tradition, an Eskimo people who vanished before the modern Dena'ina Indians became established in the central peninsula. Only four sites of the culture have been excavated by scientists.

"This is right in downtown Soldotna," observed Girves.

About 20 students were signed up for the archaeology field school. They meticulously mapped the site in three dimensions, excavated a transect across one house pit and dug several outside pits for comparison. About a dozen volunteers helped out intermittently. They all worked on the site the latter part of May and all of June, carefully working downward, inch by inch, with trowels.

And they hit the archaeologists' version of buried treasure.

"We found nearly 2,000 artifacts," Girves told the college audience. "Eighty percent were notched stones."

Notched stones typically were weights on fishing nets made of spruce roots. Fish bones and post holes for what may have been drying racks suggest that the ancient villagers were doing the same thing modern people do in the area: hustling for salmon.

The class made the rare and precious find of a nearly intact birch bark basket. About 70 percent of it was left, it had stones inside and it was in good enough condition to show how it was folded and stitched.

"We were so excited at the time that we forgot to take a picture of it," he said.

Then, on one of the last days of the dig, student Zoya Oskolkoff uncovered a big rock buried in the hearth area. It was suspiciously smooth and regular. When she dug down far enough and turned it over, it proved to be a carved stone lamp.

All those artifacts are now in the keeping of the anthropology department.

Girves said the site raised a lot of questions. The positions of charcoal and stones implied that the structure had burned and collapsed inward. The basket, the lamp and numerous fish bones found in the attached storage pit suggested that the residents may have abandoned their home abruptly.

Although the dig is officially over, the work is far from done. Students are cataloging the finds, entering them into a database and analyzing them. Samples will be sent away for carbon dating. Girves and Oskolkoff are working on a Web site with maps and photos from the dig. And in March, Boraas and Girves plan to present the findings at a science conference in Fairbanks.

The 2000 excavation covered only a small fraction of the site, and its future is unsure. Although the college archaeologists would like to do more there, funding educational digs is a perennial challenge, Girves said.

"It is impossible to tell when the next dig will be done there," he said.

But the college will continue to pursue hands-on archaeology training for its students. In 2001, the field school will be digging a site along the lower Kasilof River.

Girves said he grew up in Soldotna and left the state to attend college. He finds it ironic that after getting interested in archaeology, he found that the action was back at KPC in his old neighborhood.

"We have a pretty strong anthropology program here," he said.

"It's kind of exciting to come back."

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