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!