Past under cover

Cutting edge technology aids search for fort

Posted: Friday, August 29, 2003

An archaeology project got under way earlier this week in Old Town Kenai to try to uncover some of the city's buried past. Several archaeologists joined forces and employed cutting edge technology in an effort to locate the foundation of what was Fort Kenay.

"We're looking for structures, a possible fort location and late 19th and early 20th century features that can be tied to historic events of this area," said Alan Boraas, Kenai Peninsula College professor of anthropology and one of the archaeologists involved in the project.

For more than 10 years, Boraas has been studying the Battle of Kenai, which is believed to have taken place at the fort in 1797. In the pouring rain, he performed the laborious task of laying out several 20-meter-by-20-meter grids, the first step of the project, and recorded points along the grid with a global positioning system unit.

The grids were laid between the Russian Orthodox Church and nearby St. Nicholas Chapel, Veronica's Coffeehouse, the offices of attorney Peter F. Mysing, architects Klauder and Co. and several private residences.

"The land owners were very gracious in giving us their consent," Boraas said.

The second step of the project employed the use of a magnetic surveying instrument called a gradiometer. It's used to measure Earth's total magnetic field at a point location. Since things like subsurface foundations and artifacts affect the local magnetic field, the gradiometer can be used as a noninvasive way of locating these features to within half a meter's depth.

"It's not only a superior technique compared to excavating (digging) to locate subsurface structures and features, but it's perfect to use in a situation like this where you may not want the ground disturbed because you have numerous private land owners," said Becky Saleeby, an archaeologist with the National Park Service in Anchorage, and one of the people responsible for arranging the gradiometer to be used in Kenai.

The $25,000 gradiometer used for the project was donated by the National Parks Service Midwest Archaeological Center in Neb-raska, and Jennifer Pederson, an archaeologist from the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park in Ohio donated her services to operate the instruments.

"I've never done a survey of this type outside the Midwest, so I'm excited to see what we find," said Pederson, an Alaska Native who was raised and educated in the Lower 48.

Pederson works at the Cahokia Mound site in Illinois and gave a presentation on the gradiometer and its use in archaeology there at the Geophysical Techniques Workshop earlier this year. Saleeby attended that workshop and asked if Pederson would be interested in giving a demonstration here in Alaska. Pederson agreed, which is how the project came to be.

Using the grids Boraas laid out, Pederson made parallel sweeps through the area with the gradiometer and recorded the data. A lot of shapes were revealed, but nothing was immediately conclusive.

"The results are hard to interpret, and the data will have to be analyzed," Saleeby said. "Hopefully, between Alan and Jennifer, they can disseminate and identify what the features we found are."

In theory, their findings could eventually be superimposed on a modern map to accurately depict the fort's location.

However, Boraas said, "There has been a lot of activity in the area since the late 1700s, so it will be challenging to sort out what goes with what time period."

All that work just to piece together some history and place a few forgotten features on a map may seem insignificant, but it's important to a lot of people, according to Saleeby.

"It's part of Alaska's history," she said. "People want to know the history of this area, what went on and when. This is authentic stuff. It's real stuff and that appeals to residents and tourists alike."

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