This past week, our 2018 team began working on the pilot survey of Sugpiaq (Alutiiq)-Russian period historic sites in and around Old Harbor. Our main focus was an archaeological site by the lighthouse, which has several components. The oldest component dates to the Ocean Bay period and is about 4000 years old, while the younger component is from the late Sugpiaq-Russian period, roughly 1855 to 1865 CE.
Some portions of the lighthouse site were excavated by the Old Harbor Field School in 1995 and 1996 by junior high and high school students in a project directed by Ben Fitzhugh while he was a graduate student at the University of Michigan (Fitzhugh 2001). From these previous excavations, we know that the historic component of the site contains several large house pits (also known as barabaras), a storage shed and a banya (steam bath or sauna). Our goal in returning to the lighthouse site was to map the extent of the site and test how intact the remaining deposits are.
The intactness of archaeological deposits is key to learning about the past. When the layers of past cultural material have been disturbed by animals, plants, erosion or more modern human activity, it can be difficult to discern activity spaces in the site or understand how people were using the area. In the case of the lighthouse site, there are numerous factors that have altered the natural and cultural depositional layers or strata. These include road construction, digging, bulldozing and the natural processes of erosion. As a result, our exploration of the lighthouse site has yielded few intact deposits, however, we are still able to get a larger picture of the extent of the site.
Our work at the lighthouse site began by laying a survey line, using the lighthouse itself as a reference point. We then used a soil probe and auger at points along the survey line to see the strata beneath the surface. When we found a particularly promising section, we expanded outward perpendicular from the survey line to create a small gridded area of auger and soil probe tests. Due to their small size, augers and soil probes do not turn up much cultural material other than charcoal and small fire cracked rocks, so when we found a spot that we wanted to examine more closely, we had to open a shovel test pit. Our team opened four shovel test pits and found historic ceramic fragments in one of them. Ceramics can often provide accurate dates for an archaeological deposit because specific types and patterns were manufactured at known dates. We will have to look up the pattern on this ceramic, but if it is like the ceramics found here by the Old Harbor Field School in 1995 and 1996, it should give a date of 1855 to 1865 CE, right at the end of Russia’s occupation of Kodiak.
From our explorations, we can tell that there are a couple house pits along the coastline, some of which have side rooms, with great views of the harbor and the Sitkalidak Narrows and easy access to a freshwater stream. With such accommodations, it is no wonder that Sugpiaq people have made this spot their home multiple times over thousands of years, including the present day!
Fitzhugh, Ben. 2001. “Community Archaeology: Old Harbor Style.” In Looking Both Ways: Heritage and Identity of the Alutiiq People, edited by Aron L. Crowell, Amy F. Steffian and Gordon L. Pullar, 132. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press.