Digging history

Posted: Sunday, July 02, 2000

Journey through time unfolds near Soldotna

Anthropology student Leslie Holden was on her knees, scraping at the floor of a trench bisecting the largest of several ancient house pits.

"I uncovered a piece of birch bark that had a hole in it that made it look like maybe it had been sewn," she said. "I spent the next day and a half unearthing it."

What emerged was an intact birch bark basket, perhaps 1,500 years old.

"I was trying to keep it intact. It was very brittle. What was significant about it -- besides it being intact -- was that it was filled with stones. It had flat rocks lining the bottom. It had a boiling stone."

Many Native people used hot stones to boil water in baskets, said Doug Reger, an archaeologist for the state Office of History and Archaeology. He said the basket Holden found also held several vertebrae from a small fish.

The house pit Kenai Peninsula College anthropology Professor Alan Boraas and his class have been excavating since May 25 fronts the Kenai River just downstream from the Sterling Highway bridge in Soldotna. Reger said the dig also has yielded several carved wooden pegs or parts of ancient shafts.

"That is going to be a pretty important site because it appears to have burned," he said. "That gives the archaeologists a snapshot of that home, because the people didn't scavenge the site. They didn't remove a lot of the materials that ordinarily would have been removed during abandonment."

Reger said charred wood and bark last much longer than unburned wood.

The site, which includes nearly a dozen house pits, dates to the Kachemak Riverine culture that flourished along the Kenai River from 1000 B.C. to 1000 A.D. Boraas' class is conducting the first major excavation there, but artifacts Reger pulled from a test hole in 1983 were radio-carbon dated to 470 A.D.

The new excavation penetrates layers of soil representing hundreds or even thousands of years of occupation, said Joey Girves, Boraas' field supervisor and teaching assistant. The trench cuts through numerous charred logs, planks and bits of charcoal.

"The charcoal is either the roof or the walls that have fallen in," Boraas said. "We've also seen some large sheets of birch bark (some 20 inches across) as though they were waterproofing in the ceiling."

The basket Holden found was about 4-inches tall, 5-inches wide and 7-inches long. The brown bark no longer looked much like birch, she said. Part was charred. As she worked, she thought only of extracting it carefully and respectfully.

"We didn't look at it carefully. We just put it in a bucket of soil from that hole. We were afraid it would disintegrate," she said. "Afterward, I thought about who could have put it there and who could have left it there 1,500 years ago. How could it have been there? I've thought and thought about it.

"The neatest thing is walking out here every day to work. It's like digging for buried treasure. With each scoop, you don't know what's going to turn up next, and we're trying to come up with the big picture, not just the artifacts themselves.

"It's just being out here, digging in the dirt outside and being with a good group of people. It's the honor of unearthing things that have been here for 1,500 years untouched. We have the honor of unearthing them and touching them. It also feels a little sacrilegious, or maybe invasive is a better word."

Scraping with a trowel, she found a broad flake of stone smeared with red ochre.

"Revlon stone," she said.

A piece of blackened birch bark appeared, then a sharp flake struck from a cobble and a notched stone Boraas believes was the weight for a fishing net.

"I swear, I pulled out some kid's rock collection the other day," she said. "It was just a collection of pretty little stones."

Boraas said the Kachemak Riverine culture was related to the Kachemak Marine culture on Kachemak Bay. While the marine people lived on shellfish, seals and whales, though, the riverine people depended on salmon.

"We don't know a lot about the particular kind of fishing they did," Boraas said. "Obviously, they were salmon fishing, but how were they doing it? We don't know a lot about their social organization. We don't know why they left. Those are the kinds of questions we're asking."

The researchers pose theories about how the riverine people lived and why they might have left, he said. They seek clues to test the theories.

"The biggest questions relate to the disappearance of the Kachemak culture and the appearance of the Dena'ina, which was about 1000 A.D.," Boraas said. "The related question is, 'How were they fishing?'"

He and Girves believe the Kachemak people used gillnets made from spruce roots, a method more recently recorded from Yupik people on the upper Kuskokwim River.

Of nearly 1,600 artifacts recovered from the dig, more than 1,000 are notched stones the diameter of a golf ball. Reger said similar stones unearthed in Kachemak Bay were tied with bits of spruce root.

"That suggests to me that they were used for nets," he said.

Boraas said the Kenai River near the archaeological site is perfect for drift gillnetting. It is free of large boulders, rapids and overhanging brush. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game put its sonar fish counter nearby because the area is perfect for the nets biologists use to calibrate sonar counts.

Erik Boraas, Alan's son, dug a test hole where he thought ancient fishers might have pulled up their kayaks. He found fish bones, a decorated stone and an apparent net mender's work site.

"In this corner, I found a pile of six or seven blanks for notched stones," he said. "Over here, I found competed ones -- 15 or 16 of them. In the center, I found hundreds of flakes, and probably 30 broken notched stones."

Finally, he found a layer of sand marked with broad circles of darker soil -- the remains of ancient post holes.

"Fish-drying rack," guessed partner Gilbert Burkman.


No caption was contained in the photo file

While the researchers think the Kachemak people fished sockeyes with gillnets on the Kenai, the Dena'ina seemingly used dams or weirs to trap kings and silvers on the tributaries. The Dena'ina had a village overlooking Slikok Creek.

"At Slikok, we haven't found the dam, but we've found the houses where they processed fish and where they stored fish," Alan Boraas said. "The key was their corporate kin structure that was able to organize labor to harvest large amounts of fish."

Girves said the Dena'ina also had a cold storage system.

"They would dig pits, line them with birch bark, then layer fish and grass. They were able to keep them cold," he said.

Researchers have found no cold storage system at the Kachemak Riverine site.

Girves wondered how the Dena'ina replaced the Kachemak people.

"Was there environmental change? Was it violent conflict? Did they intermarry?" he asked.

Geologist Richard Reger, Doug's brother, said the climate changed about the time of the cultural change. The Medieval Warming Period ran from 800 A.D. to about 1250 A.D., followed by the Little Ice Age from 1730 to the late 1800s.

How that affected the salmon is another question. Perhaps, with their weirs and cold storage, the Dena'ina were better able to cope, Girves said.

"Right now, there are more questions than answers," he said.

There are hints of social ties, such as the inch-long barbed slate point found by Zoya Oskolkoff, a Kenaitze Indian working toward a bachelor's degree in anthropology.

"This one had long barbs more typical of what's found around Kachemak Bay," Doug Reger said. "That suggests to me that there was a lot of travel and maybe even social ties between Kachemak Bay and the people along the Kenai River."

The riverine people also used red chert and volcanic stones available from Kachemak Bay.

Oskolkoff said she hopes eventually to work with local tribes or her Native corporation.

"I've been interested in anthropology because of being Native and growing up in this area," she said. "It seems to me like this whole area is just waiting for us anthropology students to get done from the college and open it up. There are a lot of sites that haven't been excavated."

From the sizes of house pits, Girves guessed size of the village population.

"If 10 to 20 people lived in a house, and there are 10 house pits, that would be a population of 100 to 200 people," he said.

Alan Boraas said he would like to know the interior layout of the houses. In Southeast Alaska, he said, the Tlingits put hearths down the center of a house and rooms for families to the sides. In a Southwest Alaska village, the men lived together in a separate building.

The trench at the Kenai River site uncovered several hearths and located the outer walls of the house. However, it did not reveal the inner layout. Boraas said a future project might excavate a whole quarter of the house to learn more. He also would like to dig a trench to reveal activities that occurred in the surrounding area.

"It might be five years before we know what we've got here," he said.

Researchers will spend the winter analyzing the summer's work, he said. He is trying to fund radiocarbon dating for bits of wood uncovered at different depths. He said researchers will write an interim report and ponder how to continue the work.

"We'll figure out finances, time and who has the energy -- whether we want to do another field school or go to other avenues like volunteers."

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