UNALASKA (AP) -- The old black suitcase had been sitting in a corner for so long, no one at the museum in Texas could remember where it came from. There was no paper trail. A single word, perhaps a name, was associated with the bag - Blahuta. The only other thing anyone knew was that the contents came from the Aleutians.
The Strecker Museum, part of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, was in the process of redefining their mission. Materials that did not fit within their mission statement would have to find new, more appropriate homes. But the Strecker staff was not even aware of a museum in the Aleutians. The 1940s suitcase and its contents languished.
Enter one free-lance conservator, who had done an assessment at the Museum of the Aleutians two years ago. Hired for a project by the Strecker, the conservator knew of a museum in the Aleutians.
On Feb. 1, the mystery suitcase, wrapped in plain brown paper, arrived at the Museum of the Aleutians. The initial list of contents had not been particularly inspiring.
''Bone implement with crochet-like hook at one end,'' the description read. It turned out to be a harpoon.
''Ivory adze with fire-starting hole'' turned out to be a whale rib bone wedge designed to split wood. The small socket carved into one side was designed to hold animal fat. As the wedge worked its way down through the wood, friction would begin to melt the fat, which ran down the wedge and assured it could be easily removed.
The 119 objects housed for so many years in the plain black suitcase turned out to be a small treasure trove of implements dating from 150 to perhaps 300 years old.
''This is the Aleut culture right on the cusp of contact,'' said museum director Dr. Rick Knecht.
A beautifully wrought ivory spoon sat next to an ivory comb on a bright yellow tray in the museum's back room. There were toggling and barbed harpoons, antler and bone hunting darts, barbed lance tips, sockets, prongs, fore shafts, and whalebone wedges.
There was a calcite labret, its rosy red ocher stain still evident, and a carved bird head, part of a system used to attach a harpoon to a kayak.
''There is so much material here. It makes my back hurt to think of how much dirt had to be moved to get so many objects in such good condition,'' Knecht said.
He suspects the contents of the suitcase almost certainly represent the souvenir-hunting efforts of a soldier stationed in the Aleutians during World War II. Knecht theorizes the soldier might have walked behind some large piece of earth moving equipment during wartime construction, checking for archaeological finds.
''Souvenir hunting was a big deal here during the war,'' said Anne Rowland, museum curator.
''It wouldn't be too surprising if it was from here,'' Knecht said. ''A lot of looting was done at the spit site during that time.''
As he handled and explained what the pieces were, Knecht suddenly stopped.
''Look at this,'' he said, holding a slender piece of bone with a narrow slit cut into its side. ''This harpoon point, this is something new.''
Excited now, Knecht began to check other objects in the collection. More than a half dozen similar pieces were quickly identified.
''This illustrates a prehistoric culture all of a sudden getting metal. The slit would have held a metal blade. This only lasted a brief time. That's wild,'' he said. ''I have really never seen this before.''
The museum director was also thrilled to discover a thinly worked rim of whalebone held together with four copper rivets, which were still in place. At first Knecht thought it might be the rim to a vessel of some kind, but closer inspection has led him to believe it is a rim of a drum.
The collection holds another puzzle or two. One short bone piece, perhaps three inches in length, has a cross shape carved in relief on one end, and a square socket carved into the other.
''The day we get a collection this size and know what everything is, is the day we should stop collecting,'' Knecht said. ''The trend in Aleut prehistory is that as you go through time, you get more and more gadgets. Just because its prehistoric doesn't mean it won't change.''
Knecht and Rowland were particularly pleased to see the string of blue and white glass beads.
''We know these beads were actively traded in the Aleutians. Until now we didn't own any,'' Rowland said. ''The ones currently on display are borrowed.''
They also now own slate ulu blades, a sharpener and a scraper, along with an early whetstone. A small collection of seal teeth look as if they were part of a necklace of some kind, having been drilled and apparently strung together at some point.
Rowland believes the collection is probably one of hundreds gathered by bored soldiers and taken away at the end of the war.
''This is definitely stuff coming home,'' Rowland said.
Distributed by The Associated Press
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