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.

auger089 by LLF
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!