Dig site yields insight into history

Past's puzzle unearthed

Posted: Friday, June 28, 2002

In the distance, crashing waves slowly encroach upon the surrendering sand. A tight wall of spruce trees encircles a cleared plot on the edge of the eroding bluff, forming a protective shield from inland winds. Still, there is a slight breeze, enough to keep the mosquitoes at bay and to carry the salty sea air to the bluff that towers hundreds of feet above the disappearing beach.

All is as it might have been more than a hundred years ago, when a small village of around seven homes perched on the edge of the bluff overlooking Cook Inlet. The site's natural elements remained almost entirely unchanged as industry greatly altered the face of the Kenai Peninsula. But one thing is slowly and surely eradicating all signs that the Dena'ina village ever existed.

Natural erosion of the bluff's face has led to the disintegration of nearly 200 feet of land since the village was re-established at some point in the 1920s. Only the remains of one home still exist out of what was once a community of seven homes.

It is the earth foundation of that one home that is revealing a lot about how Russian influences melded with traditional ways to create a new life for the Kenaitze people who lived there from around 1820 to 1920.

"For us, it really is a gold mine," said Alan Boraas, professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College and the supervising archaeologist for the dig. "Because of bluff erosion and urban development there are very few places like this left, so that makes this a gold mine."

For that reason, Boraas requested that the exact location of the site not be disclosed.


Students from Kenai Peninsula College and the Kenaitze Indian Tribe's Susten Camp for children work at an archeological dig at Kalifornsky Village last week.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

In a team effort combining nine children from the Kenaitze Indian Tribe's annual Susten Camp, their supervisors, Boraas and five students enrolled in his anthropology field school, more than 1,000 artifacts have been unearthed in two sites at the village.

The children are playing a large role in the unearthing of this information, all while working side by side with Boraas, who has decades of archaeological experience.

"This is a way for a lot of them to get back their own culture," said Amber Glenzel, cultural heritage director for the Kenaitze Indian Tribe and coordinator of the Susten Camp, which provides cultural heritage exploration for youth. "Today's kids, I think a lot of kids, they really need to get back to their culture."

"They're doing everything, recording all the artifacts. The opportunity these kids have, they'll look back on it in 20 to 30 years and know how lucky they were."

Twelve-year-old Shannon Alexie knows how unique the experience is, even now.

"I like when we find artifacts, because when I find them some of them have these cool designs," she said, as she sat cross-legged on the grass letting the sifted dirt fall through her fingers.


Professor Alan Boraas photographs an artifact before cataloging it for further study.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

Another camper, Nathaniel Davis, who has been participating in the Susten Camp's archaeological digs for four years, said the artifacts were also a favorite part of his experience.

"It's fun for a number of things. It's different because it is a historical site, so we find a lot more stuff," Davis said comparing this summer's dig with previous years at prehistorical sites.

"The Dena'ina believed in not saving anything," he said, explaining why fire rock was the only reward of past years' digs, whereas this summer they are finding more intriguing artifacts. "It is very interesting compared to last year's."

"He's already told me he wants to be an archaeologist, and he got that from susten camp," Glenzel said of the 16-year-old Davis.

Alexie, her twin sister and Davis represent the youngest and oldest of the campers. In addition to a wide range in age, the group is diverse in other ways. Native Alaskan cultures such as Yupik, Inupiat and Interior Athabascans are all represented by one or more child in the group.

"This is probably one of the most diverse archaeological sites," said Boraas.

While the kids are learning about the process of archaeology from the day-to-day process of scraping and sifting the sod, they are also benefiting from Boraas' extensive knowledge of the region and its history.

"He is just a wealth of information about this site," Glenzel said. "They are getting first-hand training in the field to see if they want to go into that field."

"I think about what they can use here that they can use later," Boraas said. "Small increments of their work will reap big benefits later."

Concepts like teamwork that the campers have learned on the site will be transferable to other projects and jobs throughout their life, but so will the patience they have had to learn while working at an archaeological dig where rewards are often not seen for years.

Boraas said he continually tries to ask the children what the artifact will reveal about the behavior of the house's inhabitants.

"A lot of those answers won't come for one, two, three or four years. We don't have instant answers. For every hour out in the field, there is four times that in the lab," he said.

Considering that the team began excavation June 10 and will have worked five, five-hour days a week for four weeks by the closing ceremonies, that is a total 100 field hours and 400 potential lab hours in the years to come.

"This is a lot of information we've got here. Future work will be partly up to what we think we can learn from this site," Boraas said.

So far, the site has been very productive. It has provided raw materials from which Boraas, Glenzel and others can glean information about life in the village throughout the past few centuries.

In addition to glass, ceramic, metal and leather artifacts, the group has unearthed a significant amount of crushed moose bones. However, no remnants remain of any other animals a subsistence society would have eaten.

Drawing from his knowledge of Kenaitze mythology, some of which was gleaned from years of work with tribal leader Peter Kalifornsky, Boraas can tentatively explain why moose bones remain while others, like rabbits and fish, do not.

"Traditional Dena'ina ways was to ritually discard bones in a way that sent those bones to be reincarnated," he said.

However, because moose were not native to the peninsula until the turn of the 20th century, they were new to the Kenaitze, so their bones did not need to be discarded in the traditional fashion.

"This is totally cool, very interesting," said Boraas who said he is excited because finally there are tangible artifacts that can substantiate oral tradition.

"We're finding these in context -- on site, as an example of how the Dena'ina people individualized this period of change." Boraas said.

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