Doing Archaeology at Karluk Lake

House excavation in progress. The foreground is the main room of the house, which has two hearth iterations, and the largest side room is in the background.

My summer 2019 field season has begun! I was invited by the Alutiiq Museum to participate in an excavation at a late prehistoric Sugpiaq-Alutiiq house at the outlet of the Karluk Lake. This project is sponsored by (and on land managed by) Koniag, Inc, who put the field team up in a lovely cabin for our two week stay at the lake!

View of Karluk Lake from the cabin.

The most recent use of the site was in the 17th and 18th centuries, prior to Russian occupation of Kodiak, and consists of numerous multi-roomed houses. Alutiiq houses (or ciqlluat) in this time period often have thatched roofs, although we found that there were insulating roof sods on at least some of the side rooms at the house we excavated.

This was my first time working on an excavation on Kodiak, as the OHAHP has focused on survey thus far, and I am grateful to have learned from the vast experiences of archaeologists Patrick Saltonstall (check out his blog here), Molly Odell and Alex Painter from the Alutiiq Museum. Through the excavation, we learned that the house had been remodeled several times. There were two hearths in the main room, one clearly older than the other, and evidence in the back room of multiple uses, including as a sleeping room and a smoke house. There was a ton of charcoal and fire-cracked rock both in the house and in the associated trash pile outside the front door, so we are wondering how long the structure was used for living vs. smoking/preserving fish.

The team recovered some Sugpiaq-Alutiiq belongings and tools from the excavation, including a tiny fly-fishing hook (a new find for Kodiak!), ulus, ground slate points of various sizes and a labret! We also uncovered lots of animal bones and shells, which tells us about what Alutiiq people were eating. While we predominantly found fish bones, a resource that has and continues to draw people to the lake outlet, there were also shellfish and sea mammals, foods that only could have come from the coast. This indicates that Alutiiq ancestors were bringing coastal resources with them when they lived and fished at the lake and/or traded with other families that remained on the coast. Through the detailed analysis of the animal bones and shells, the research team hopes to learn more about what species were eaten and in which season the Karluk Lake village was occupied. This information helps archaeologists tell the story of how Alutiiq ancestors lived year to year and season to season, possibly moving between two or three houses or hunting/fishing camps within a year.

Alex, Hollis and Molly celebrating after backfilling the site. (PC: Patrick Saltonstall)

I learned so much about house excavation, site mapping and Sugpiaq-Alutiiq lifeways from this project and I am excited to take that knowledge with me when I start OHAHP’s 2019 fieldwork at Tanginak Anchorage in July!

Museum Work (and the Question of Ukshivik)

After our successful pilot survey around Old Harbor, the Seattle-based team flew back to Kodiak for a week of museum work at both the Alutiiq and Baranov Museums. We had several goals: 1) accessioning the few artifacts from the survey into the Alutiiq Museum’s collection, 2) studying artifacts and field notes at the Alutiiq Museum and 3) looking at historic maps and documents at the Baranov Museum.

To accession the artifacts, Hope, Hollis and Larissa scanned all the field notes that our team members had taken during the survey, transferred photos to the museum’s collections manager, washed the artifacts and glued tiny paper catalog numbers to them. Thankfully, we only had 4 small bags of artifacts!

Artifacts from the 2018 pilot survey, post-cleaning. (PC: Hollis Miller)

Although Ben and Larissa had to catch a flight back to Seattle after just a couple days in Kodiak, Hollis and Hope stayed for another week to study museum collections. We started with the artifacts and notes from the University of Wisconsin’s Aleut/Konyag Project from the 1960s, which conducted excavations in Three Saints Bay, on southwestern Sitkalidak Island and at Kiavak (to the southwest of Three Saints Bay). These excavations laid some of the groundwork for archaeological interpretation of this region, however, the focus was not really on historic sites from the period of Russian occupation. These notes were helpful in learning the location and findings of previous excavations, including a small test done at the Three Saints Bay artel site, which we also surveyed this year. In addition to the Aleut/Konyag Project notes, we looked at collections from previous excavations at the Lighthouse Site and 1990s tests at Nunamiut, a cannery located in central Three Saints Bay.

Hollis Miller studying historic ceramics at the Alutiiq Museum. (PC: Hope Loiselle)

During our afternoon at the Baranov Museum, we looked at some replicas of historic maps of Kodiak. One of the things I was looking for was more documentation of the supposed Ukshivik settlement in Barling Bay, which we had tried and failed to locate during our pilot survey. I originally encountered Ukshivik on a map from the Kodiak Island Borough, which listed the settlement as abandoned. A circa 1850 map in Sonja Luehrmann’s book Alutiiq Villages under Russian and U.S. Rule (2008) also has an odinochka (or small seasonal labor camp) in the same approximate location; however, when I asked a few folks from Old Harbor about it, they had not heard of such a site. It is a bit of a mystery!

Caption from the 1849 map of Kodiak, courtesy of the Baranov Museum.

At the Baranov Museum, I looked at a map drawn by Captain Illarion Arkhimandritov in 1849 and saw that there was a settlement in Barling Bay called Ukshivikak (approximated from pronunciation of Russian text) – not too different from Ukshivik. I cannot publicly post pictures of the map, but you can see some of the areas detailed in the caption above. So, these findings beg the question – why didn’t we find Ukshivik? The maps in Luehrmann’s book and at the museum were too zoomed out to determine the exact location of the settlement, so it is possible that the large site (KOD-551) we found to the north of Ukshivik’s expected location is the one mentioned on these maps. It is also possible that the settlement mapped in 1849 is closer to the mouth of the bay where other historic sites are known to be. We did not investigate those sites during our survey as they have been significantly eroded and we did not expect them to yield much data. I look forward to searching for other maps and reading ethnohistoric accounts of the region to see if there are more clues about the Ukshivik settlement and its residents!

The Three Saints Bay Artel

On our final day of fieldwork, the team headed west from Old Harbor to Three Saints Bay, which is one bay over from Barling Bay. Three Saints Bay is perhaps infamous in the history of Kodiak as the place where Grigorii Shelikhov built the first permanent Russian settlement in Alaska after orchestrating a brutal massacre of Sugpiaq/Alutiiq people at Refuge Rock (known in the Native language as Awa’uq) in 1784. Russian construction in Three Saints consisted of a main fort (or krepost) and a separate settlement or work camp for Sugpiaq/Alutiiq hostages taken after the massacre. The krepost served as the administrative center of Russia’s Alaskan ventures until it was damaged following earthquakes and the administrative center moved to St. Paul Harbor (modern day Kodiak city) in 1792. What remained was the Sugpiaq/Alutiiq work camp or artel, which continued to be used for at least a couple more decades. It was this site that our team was looking for during our survey of Three Saints Bay.

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Remains of a hunting/fishing cabin in Three Saints Bay. The owner of the cabin chose to dismantle it when they sold the land about 10 years ago. (PC: Ben Fitzhugh)

Since we did not know the exact location of the site, we had to investigate a large swath of the shoreline, watching for eroding artifacts and house pits or other anomalous depressions or ridges as we walked. The first evidence of human occupation we found were the remains of a cabin, which had collapsed and likely been burned no more than a decade before. It was really cool to see an archaeological site in the making with this cabin, as you could still easily discern the structure and numerous artifacts on the surface. I wonder what the cabin site would look like in another 50 years? 100 years?

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Wood and metal artifacts from the cabin in Three Saints bay. (PC: Ben Fitzhugh)

From the cabin, we continued up the coast, crossing a wide stream into a forested area, where we found a few depressions that looked like small house pits. It would be anomalous for Sugpiaq/Alutiiq people to build houses in such a low, wet, forested area, so we surmised that these Sugpiaq/Alutiiq houses were not placed here by choice. (Later research at the Alutiiq Museum suggests that these houses were part of an American period settlement associated with a cannery.) Nevertheless, the site did not match the description of the one we were looking for, so we continued searching and, as we were heading back to the boat, found a large midden deposit eroding onto the beach. The midden contained preserved shell and bone, in addition to a couple slate artifacts. We had found the artel site!

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Bone and shell eroding from the midden at the Three Saints Bay artel site. (PC: Hope Loiselle)

Closer examination of the eroding midden face and the surface above it suggest that the site has been disturbed by both bear and human digging. We know that a team of University of Wisconsin archaeologists did some testing at the site in early 1960s, but there were more pits in the site than they reported digging. Despite the disturbance and lack of clear house pits, the midden is rich and extends for at least 30 meters along the shoreline – making this a potential site for future sampling or excavation. The site is part of an important story of the early (often violent and cruel) interactions between Sugpiat/Alutiit and Russian fur traders and is also the beginning of the community of Old Harbor, which was the name given to this artel site following the move of the administrative center to St. Paul Harbor.

Panoramic view of the eroding face of the artel site midden in Three Saints Bay. (PC: Ben Fitzhugh)

The question remaining about the site is whether or not we would be able to make sense of any artifacts we may find here, given the disturbed nature of the site (similar to considerations that we need to make about the Lighthouse site). Hollis and Ben are currently thinking through the next steps for the project, including future excavations, as they assemble an official report on the 2018 survey.

The Kiliuda Site

On a misty morning, we boated out to Kiliuda Bay, located to the northeast of Old Harbor. There are numerous archaeological sites in Kiliuda Bay, but we were just interested in one – a site that was occupied from before Russian contact through the late 1830s. In the literature it is usually referred to as simply ‘the Kiliuda site’. This site was visited by Russian explorer Urey Lisiansky in 1805 and is mentioned in Church records through the 1830s when the village was depopulated following a smallpox epidemic. After this epidemic, the Russian American Company purposely consolidated the remaining Kodiak Archipelago population into seven villages, leaving many sites, such as Kiliuda, abandoned. These seven consolidated villages were the forerunners of the modern towns and villages on Kodiak today.

Location of Kiliuda Bay relative to Old Harbor.

When we got to the Kiliuda site, the whole area was shrouded in a thick fog, but thankfully it soon lifted so that we could take in the beautiful surroundings! The site has a great vantage point to see both deeper into the bay and out to Sitkalidak Island – I can see why people would want to live here! There is also a calm cove around the corner from the site, which would be useful for coming and going by boat (in fact, we moored our boat there).

Hollis at KOD-077
Hollis Miller standing on the high point of the site, which continues along the beach behind her. (PC: Ben Fitzhugh)

View from KOD-077
View from the Kiliuda site, Sitkalidak Island in the background. (PC: Hollis Miller)

At this site, we opted not to probe the subsurface with the auger or soil probe because it was quite obvious from pedestrian survey that the site was well preserved. We found several large and deep house pits in a line along the shore in addition to an extensive midden deposit. A distinguishing feature of this site was the plethora of sea mammal and fish bones right along the beach. Some of these likely eroded out of the archaeological site, but others were probably more recent and naturally deposited on the beach by waves. Having such good preservation on the surface is an indicator that more bones will be preserved in the midden itself. By studying the bones of animals that people left behind, we can learn a lot about their diet, food preparation and skin processing – and how those might have changed during the new colonial situation.

fish bones at kod-077
Fish vertebra found eroding out of the Kiliuda site. (PC: Hollis Miller)

We recorded the locations of the houses and middens and then took drone footage of the site, which should help us identify more features on the surface. This site is a good candidate for excavation due to its preservation and age. It could help tell the story of communities that were already in existence at the time of Russian contact and how they responded to newly imposed demands while maintaining their original settlement location.

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Sea mammal humerus (likely from a seal) found on the beach at the Kiliuda site. (PC: Hollis Miller)

Exploring Barling Bay, part 2 of 2

Read part 1 here.

At the end of our first day in Barling Bay, we re-located KOD-551, a known archaeological site with a historic component. We found the site to be much more extensive than previously thought, extending up the hill from the coast, rather than just occupying the low bluffs. The upland portion of the site was really awesome! There were at least 4 large houses, each with several side rooms. Despite heavy overgrowth of ferns, salmonberries and pushki, the sod walls were still quite visible on the surface, such that we could walk from main rooms into the side rooms easily. Jennifer Alexanderoff also located a slate-lined hearth box in the middle of one of the houses. The fact that all these features were right below the surface indicates that this is a relatively recent settlement, which may have both historic and Koniag pre-contact period deposits. It was too late to dig more on that first day, but the team was heartened by the day’s finds as we boated back to Old Harbor in the Kodiak rain and spotted some whales in the distance.

Jennifer Alexanderoff with the hearth box she located at KOD-551. (PC: Ben Fitzhugh)

On our second day in Barling Bay, we focused on sites more towards the head of the bay, where there is a productive salmon stream. The most promising of these sites was located on a low bluff about half a kilometer south of the stream, named KOD-092. There were numerous house pits, some of which had hearth boxes and a dense midden (or trash) deposit with charcoal, fire cracked rock, mammal and fish bones. We had not been able to find a midden in any of the other sites so far, so we were happy to locate this one. Middens are valuable because they form a microcosm of life through food scraps, broken tools and charcoal that people threw away. We can learn so much from trash! We also had a surprise bear visitor at the site. He was walking towards us along the beach, showing no sign of fear until he got downwind of us and bolted. It was a tense moment, but everyone was safe.

Bear visitor at KOD-092. (PC: Ben Fitzhugh)

Bears also dissuaded us from going to the next site, a fishing camp near the salmon stream at the head of the bay. There were at least two bears in that area, so we opted to walk the other direction towards the mouth of the bay and check out a small site named KOD-548. This entire site was a thick salmonberry patch, but we bushwhacked through it to take a couple auger and soil probe tests, which yielded little cultural material despite the presence of house pits on the surface. We let the salmonberries win that round and headed home.

Hearth box house at KOD-551. Sod walls are outlined by flagging tape. Photo taken from one of the side rooms, looking towards the front door. (PC: Ben Fitzhugh)

On our third and final day in Barling, we revisited KOD-551 to do some more testing. That is the site in the middle of the bay that had large well-defined houses and box hearths on the surface, that we found on the first day in Barling Bay. We split into two teams and completed four test pits, both inside and outside of houses. We found a lot of charcoal, but little in the way of other cultural material. The deposits in the house with the hearth box were particularly shallow, perhaps indicating both a recent and brief occupation. Ben extensively documented that house and took both ground and aerial photographs. Its front door opens towards the shore and has two side rooms. We also noted four small holes set at relatively even intervals around the hearth – it is possible that these are post holes from the roof support. If this is true, then the structure for this house is quite similar to other historic houses that were photographed on Kodiak during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Of all the sites we visited in Barling Bay, KOD-551 looks the most promising for future excavations – especially given its proximity to Old Harbor!

Exploring Barling Bay, part 1 of 2

In addition to the lighthouse site, another area of focus for our 2018 survey is Barling Bay, which is located just a couple miles to the west of Old Harbor. While there are no modern settlements in the bay, previous archaeological surveys and historic maps show that there have been villages and smaller seasonal camps in Barling Bay in the past. Our goal in the 2018 survey was to locate substantial historic period sites that would be suitable for future excavation. Barling Bay is easily accessible by boat from Old Harbor, which would make it an ideal place for future excavations because community members of all ages could join us.

Location of Barling Bay relative to Old Harbor.

We started with a list of six sites to test in Barling Bay, which were chosen based on previous survey notes that suggested historic components to the sites. It took our team three days to survey and test these sites. On the first day we started by looking for a site called Ukshivik, which is marked as an abandoned village in the Kodiak Island Borough Maps. We had not been able to find any other information on Ukshivik in the literature or by talking to Old Harbor residents so we were eager to see what we could find on the ground. Unfortunately, once we got to where the site was supposed to be, numerous soil probes and shovel tests did not turn up any cultural material. It is possible that the site was misplaced on the map, because it seems unlikely that a nonexistent site was plotted on a modern official map, but stranger things have happened…

Field team hiking in Barling Bay towards the purported location of Ukshivik. (PC: Ben Fitzhugh)

Despite the setback, the day was not over. At the next place we stopped, we located a previously unrecorded site! Soil probes and test pits uncovered thick, black greasy layers of charcoal-stained soil that contained fragments of wood charcoal and fire cracked rock (angular, oxidized rocks that are the result of superheating in a fire). We call this a new site because it is a couple hundred meters away from any other known site, although it is likely related to some of the other younger sites in Barling Bay. Perhaps the site of a smokehouse operation set a distance away from a settlement? Right now we can only speculate – we need more information to say anything confidently.

See the next post for details about the rest of our Barling Bay survey!

Thick charcoal layer uncovered in a test pit at the new site. (PC: Angel Christiansen)

Field team picking through the charcoal layer at the newly found site in Barling Bay! (PC: Ben Fitzhugh)

The Lighthouse Site

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.

Aerial photo of the lighthouse site. (PC: Ben Fitzhugh)

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.

Barabara built by the Old Harbor Field School in 1997. (PC: Ben Fitzhugh)

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.

Setting up the survey line at the lighthouse site. (PC: Ben Fitzhugh)

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.

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Jennifer Alexanderoff and Hope Loiselle doing an auger test at the lighthouse site. (PC: Larissa Fitzhugh)

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!

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Hollis Miller, Larissa Fitzhugh and Jennifer Alexanderoff working on a shovel test at the lighthouse site. (PC: Hope Loiselle)


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.

Getting Ready for the Pilot Project

For the past several months, we have been preparing for a pilot research season in Old Harbor. The purpose of the pilot research is to locate and test archaeological sites thought to date to the Russian period. Our testing will consist of surface survey, soil probe, auger and small test pits. These methods will give us a sense of the types of artifacts at each site as well as how much a site has been disturbed. Knowing this information is important in choosing sites to excavate more fully in future field seasons.

To prepare for the pilot research, we consulted some older maps of the Old Harbor region and spoke to members of the community to pinpoint some locations where Sugpiaq people may have lived between 1784 and 1867. Ultimately, we chose 8 sites to explore across Three Saints Bay, Barling Bay and Kiliuda Bay, in addition to one site within the modern boundary of Old Harbor.

Map of Old Harbor region.

In order to get permission to work at these sites, we had to apply for permits from the State of Alaska and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who own the land on which some of the sites are located. This was a long process because we had to assemble appropriate documentation about our project plans, agreements with museums to take in any collections we generate, our qualifications as archaeologists and detailed maps of the areas we want to visit. In addition to these state and federal permits, we also consulted with Old Harbor Native Corporation, the City of Old Harbor and the Alutiiq Tribe of Old Harbor and received their input and approval for our work.

Now in the final weeks before our departure to Kodiak on August 9, we are making sure we have the supplies we need and reviewing applications for an Old Harbor intern, who will participate in the pilot research.

Keep an eye out for posts about other members of the pilot research team and updates from the field!