So the spirits won’t escape: An archaeo-fiction narrative

This post is a combined work of diary entries about my personal experience doing archaeology at Ing’yug, a Sugpiaq/Alutiiq village on Sitkalidak Island, and an imagined fictional narrative (italicized paragraphs) about a girl that lived in the village in the early 1800s. This story came out of an assignment for Writing in Archaeology, a class taught by Sara Gonzalez at the University of Washington. Writing this short fictional piece allowed me to think about the archaeological materials in a different way, while also foregrounding my own sensorial and emotional experience at Ing’yug.

We were dropped off on the beach as the sun was starting to go down. All the excitement leading to this moment of arrival fell away as I watched the boat depart. We were alone at Tanginak. It took us the rest of the daylight hours to organize our gear and begin setting up our camp – our home for the next three weeks – a quarter-mile uphill from the beach. I was unsettled that evening in my tent. Everything was new and the sounds were unfamiliar. Had I made a giant mistake in coming here? In following this career path? Wait, is that rustling sound a bear?

She was afraid that night. She could hear her mother, aunties and grandmother whispering amongst themselves by the central stone lamp, discussing the Russian man who had visited their village that day, remembering Awa’uq. She had not yet been born the last time that Russian men came to her island twenty years ago, but she knew the stories well. Her grandmother had gathered her clan and kayaked down the lagoon to their place of refuge after being warned of an impending threat. A threat unlike their usual war partners from the chain or the peninsula. Little did Grandmother know that their place of refuge would be the final resting place for so many of her people. Since the massacre, the men had been taken away and an unknown sickness swept through the islands. What did Mother and Grandmother know about this man who visited today? Were they bracing for another tragedy?

Eventually, I fell asleep and awoke the next morning with a new energy. Seeing our surroundings in the morning light put things in a better perspective. Here we were surrounded by Sugpiaq history and the lives of ancestors. We had slept atop the oldest archaeological site on the archipelago and, from that vantage, could see traces of Sugpiaq life stretching from 7,500 years ago to the present resting among the fireweed, salmonberries, pushki and nettles. I had not expected all this interconnection, although I should have. I had been so focused on a particular time and a single village, Ing’yug, that I had overlooked how Ing’yug was wrapped in a thick cloak of multigenerational, multimillennial lives and activities. Our presence here was merely a drop in the bucket.

The Russian man’s visit ended up being just another oddity and no immediate consequences or changes came to her life. She continued with her early spring routines and duties – gathering shellfish from the beach at low tide, cleaning and preparing the latest batch of fox furs that the boys brought in, and assisting her mother and aunties with preparing, storing and distributing food. On special nights all the families in the village would gather in the qasgi, a large house set behind the beach ridge and invisible from the shore. Of the few adult men who still lived at Ing’yug year-round, the eldest ones resided primarily in the qasgi, and every so often would host a feast and encourage dancing, singing and storytelling. This is where she learned the history of her people. The tales of weavers, warriors, whalers, shamans, healers, and midwives filled her being with a sense of pride. “There are not so many of us now,” the elders would say, “some of the dance masks and songs had to be retired and there are some stories that not even we know anymore. Their owners were lost.” From this, she understood that her knowledge was a valuable gift and a marker of perseverance, of survival.

We slowly became familiar with Ing’yug, our small team uncovering the sedimentary layers of its history in little squares, but the village was not yet ready to share what it had witnessed. We found very few artifacts, or ancestral belongings, but there was an abundance of charcoal-stained soil, fire-cracked rock and animal remains – evidence of a significant residence by Sugpiaq ancestors. It was not until the final day of excavation that we uncovered belongings – a slate ulu and a stone lamp, lying upside down on the floor of a house. Touching and holding artifacts, objects, belongings is powerful as you share a moment with those who made, used and discarded them – uniting those pasts and this present.

Years passed and she became a mother, then a grandmother. Leader of her family. A revered source of knowledge. A skilled seamstress, fish processer, dancer and beader. Life in Ing’yug had become more tenuous. More Russian visitors came and went, more of her people were removed or succumbed to the sickness, the Church came to stop the dances. Yet, here she still was, making do, surviving. One day, word came that everyone in the village would be relocated to Nuniaq on the Sitkalidak Narrows. There was no choice. The Russian company men had already decided. As she left her ciqlluaq in Ing’yug for the final time, she made sure to turn the stone lamp upside down so the spirits wouldn’t escape.

Mothering in the Field: Guest Post by Erin Gamble

Erin Gamble breastfeeding her son Wyatt on-site at Ing’yug on Sitkalidak Island.

Being a new mom in graduate school is definitely challenging, especially when field work is a major component for my discipline. Thanks to OHAHP and my personal hero and champion, Hollis, my then-ten-month-old son and I got to test the waters of mothering in the field. Like most fears, the expectations were nothing close to reality. Wyatt and I had an absolute blast and I fully intend to continue bringing my family on my adventures! For all the people in academia wondering about work-family issues, especially graduate students and early-career professionals, I’d like to share my experiences and offer some advice about parenting in the field.

A brief background: Wyatt and I spent five and half weeks on Kodiak, Alaska. Three of those weeks were spent at a remote field location where we assisted with an archaeological survey of a contact-era Alutiiq village. Our team consisted of the project lead Hollis Miller, our advisor Dr. Ben Fitzhugh, me and Wyatt. Hollis’ partner joined us during the second week, but for most of the survey it was just the four of us and the wildlife!

One of my biggest takeaways from our first field experience is to not be afraid (or feel guilty) to ask for help! Often, when people talk about having children in the field both parents are there supporting each other. As a graduate student, my partner is the main source of our income and cannot leave his job for extended periods of time. I’m very fortunate to have an amazingly supportive advisor and colleagues, as they were able to help me care for Wyatt and, honestly, for myself.

Being upfront about the team’s expectations and all our mutual goals was crucial, and we figured out the unknowns as we went. Wyatt didn’t yet sleep through the night and he’s big for his age. My body was in pain, sometimes excruciating pain, all the time. I was exhausted, not newborn exhausted, but pretty dang close. I couldn’t go to the bathroom without having to ask someone to mind Wyatt, and on occasion someone had to mind Wyatt while I ate. Honestly, I entirely underestimated the physical requirements of doing fieldwork with an infant. Everywhere I went, near or far, I was automatically packing an additional 22 pounds with me before even thinking about gear.

Mentally, I grappled with feelings of guilt almost nonstop. I felt guilty for not being able to do more for the team, that my (our) presence was a detriment to the work the team was doing, that I had to ask for help, and I even felt guilty about how this might be bad for my son. Mom-guilt comes in many terrible flavors, but near the end of our trip I realized that I felt guilty because I was doing the thing women aren’t supposed to do. I was selfishly having my cake and eating it! I was maintaining a productive, successful career AND a happy family. I still feel the guilt, but now I just imagine it as a badge of honor I have chosen to wear with the hope that one day making room for families in the field, in the lab, at work (or wherever moms, or parents more generally, need them) becomes normal.

In addition to the guilt, I dealt with a lot of frustration and disappointment. Being in the field is my happy place. I love excavations. I knew it wouldn’t be the same with Wyatt there, but I really wasn’t prepared for how much pain I was going to be in. My body is different after pregnancy – stronger in some ways and weaker in others. These changes exacerbated the aches and pains I felt from lugging bub, bub’s gear, and my gear all the time. However, there were a few days Wyatt either took an epic nap or Ben stole him for a couple hours and I would find my old groove and the pain would just disappear.

I think the most overwhelming feeling I have in regard to the trip is gratitude. Negative feelings and thoughts, even pain – those things are all temporary, but the work we were doing and the memories I made on this trip are important and priceless. I’m grateful to Hollis for the opportunity, her companionship, and for always being my champion. I’m grateful to the Haakanson and Clough families for treating Wyatt and I like family. I’m grateful to the people of Old Harbor for all that they shared with and taught me. I’m grateful to my advisor for putting up with my selfishness without batting an eye, and I’m grateful to the O’Dell Cross family, Patrick Saltonstall, and the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak for their hospitality and friendship. There are a million more things I am so very grateful for, but most importantly I am grateful to my son for completing my life and my husband, Ken, for encouraging my dreams.

Erin Gamble carrying her son Wyatt down the beach at Tanginak, following bear footprints! (PC: Ben Fitzhugh)

Notes on gear: Wyatt was carried using a hiking backpack carrier 95% of the time and a soft preformed carrier or in arm the rest of the time.  I shipped baby food (pouch style) ahead of us and, other than running out, this worked really well for many reasons. I packed very few toys or formal playthings. Wyatt was more interested in watching the world around him and happily played with bull kelp and other treasures from the beach.

The main item I wish I had lugged out with us was a playpen. I decided last minute not to mess with shipping and dragging one around, but it would have been nice to have a place to just set Wyatt down at the site. Luckily, the tent we used for our kitchen tent had three rooms and we were able to setup a makeshift playpen.

Finally, always bring more baby wipes! They’re useful for adults and kids alike. I’m already a believer that kids should be filthy at the end of the day, so I had very realistic expectations about Wyatt’s appearance. I made sure that the important areas were kept clean and dry, but otherwise he fit in with the rest of us working in the field.

I think the last, and most important, piece of advice I can offer is to remember to enjoy your time. Wyatt grew so much in the weeks we were out in the field. He started to notice birds, learned to wave, and figured out how to suck straws! Remember to take notice of how your little one is growing.

Camp Life at Tanginak

As the OHAHP team began planning the 2019 field season, I was most anxious about remote camping on Sitkalidak Island. I had done some camping before, but only in established campgrounds in national parks where there were latrines, water pumps and road access. Sitkalidak is far more isolated. No human communities reside there on a permanent or semi-permanent basis, but it is home to the renowned Kodiak brown bears and, since the past year, a herd of bison that is owned by the Old Harbor Native Corporation. I had no clear vision of how we would sustain a safe and functioning camp.

Erin, Wyatt and Hollis standing on the beach at Tanginak with all of our camp gear. The boat in the background (piloted by Geoff Bechtol) had just dropped us off! (PC: Ben Fitzhugh)

Thankfully, Ben has numerous years of experience setting up and running remote camps, so he led Erin, Wyatt and I in making Tanginak our home for 3 weeks.

Our personal tents set up at Tanginak.

In order to minimize food smells (which could attract bears or other wildlife) near our sleeping areas, we set up our personal tents at a distance from the cooking/eating tent. We also washed dishes at a third separate location and stored bear-attractant foods in a sealed container in a spring. That spring was also our source of fresh water, which we filtered using a hand-pumped spigot. The spring has been running for thousands of years and is likely where Alutiiq ancestors living at Tanginak got their water as well! One of the things I love about archaeology is how it makes plain that landscapes and places connect us through time, even as we write new meanings onto them – the Tanginak spring is but one example.

The Tanginak Spring flowed out from under the knoll where we camped. Our water pump is in the foreground.

It is a lot of work to run a remote camp – keeping things clean, sharing cooking tasks, pumping and carrying water, etc. – especially with just three adults. The close social quarters also created some moments of tension. Despite the challenges, however, it is hard to beat living in such a beautiful place and I am eager to return to Tanginak next summer – hopefully with a larger field team, including students and community members from Old Harbor!

Feel free to comment or reach out on social media if you have any questions about living at Tanginak or about the OHAHP. I would also love to hear your camping stories and tips!

Awa’uq: Reflections

One Sunday during our stay at Tanginak, we took a hike down the beach of Fox Lagoon to visit Awa’uq, about five miles from our camp. Awa’uq is a refuge rock off the Pacific coast of Sitkalidak that is the site of a massacre of Alutiiq people by the Russian fur trader Gregorii Shelikhov in 1784. In the Alutiiq language Awa’uq means ‘to become numb’, so named after the massacre that left hundreds of Alutiiq people dead while the Russian force suffered no casualties. This event marked the beginning of the Russian occupation of Kodiak and enabled Shelikhov to leverage control over Alutiiq leaders by taking survivors as hostages.

View of Awa’uq and the connecting rocky spit from the shore.

Refuge rocks were important landmarks in the Alutiiq past – safe places with temporary settlements for people to hide during raids, which were common across the Gulf of Alaska prior to European colonialism. The geography and geology of refuge rocks – steep cliffs, limited access, low visibility of settlements from the water – made them difficult to attack. In the case of Awa’uq, the sea-facing side of the rock is very steep and the rock is only connected to the mainland by a rocky spit at low tide.

Map showing the location of Awa’uq in reference to Tanginak Anchorage (base map from Google). They are about 5 miles apart.

Getting to see Awa’uq in person was breathtaking. I could feel the weight of what had happened and better imagine the retreat to refuge. During our visit this summer, we walked to Awa’uq, but Alutiiq ancestors from the village of Ing’yug would have travelled by boat – making the toting of provisions and children quicker and easier than our own journey. I imagined families hurrying across the connecting spit at low tide, climbing up to the top of the rock by a (now) rotted rope, and monitoring the sea from the great vantage. I also saw the ridge across the spit where Shelikhov placed his cannons and how exposed the rock was from that angle.

Rope that was used to climb on top of the rock during the 1990s excavations. The rope is now mostly rotted, but we still climbed up at the same spot. (PC: Ben Fitzhugh)

When we got to the top of the rock it was too overgrown to really see much, but I could sense the topography of house pits crammed together under a thick blanket of pushki, nettle, salmonberry and fern. A house on Awa’uq was excavated by archaeologists in the 1990s, but we didn’t spend long looking for it as we were wary of the rising tide and our narrowing window to cross back to the beach. I can imagine that it is as easy to feel trapped on this rock as it is to feel safe, perhaps something that Alutiiq ancestors pondered as they were awakened by the booms of cannon fire that August morning in 1784.

I was struck most by the views from Awa’uq – both looking out on the vast ocean and back at shore where vertical rock strata outcropped and were eroded in beautiful curving lines. The place somehow felt different than anywhere else on the island that I’d been, with both the elegance and devastation of geologic and human history so boldly on display. It’s a sight that’s difficult to forget.

View to the east from the top of Awa’uq. (PC: Ben Fitzhugh)

Dearth of artifacts: What could it mean?

Hollis measuring the depth of a test unit. (PC: Ben Fitzhugh)

As I mentioned in other posts about OHAHP’s 2019 field season, we found very few artifacts while digging test pits at Ing’yug on Sitkalidak Island. This surprised the team, because the village was occupied recently and the houses were relatively well-defined on the surface, indicating little post-occupation disturbance. So, why didn’t we find many artifacts and what could that mean about life in the village of Ing’yug?

We know that Sugpiaq/Alutiiq ancestors at Ing’yug were affected by the arrival of Russian fur trader Gregorii Shelikhov in 1784, as he laid siege to Awa’uq (refuge rock on the Pacific side of Sitkalidak Island), took hostages and conscripted Native men into hunting parties. Those left in the village of Ing’yug would have been primarily women and children, whose first thoughts were likely about survival and getting enough to eat. As of yet, we don’t know how many people lived at Ing’yug either before or after Shelikhov’s arrival, but I can imagine that the population loss sustained at initial contact would have made it difficult for residents to meet all of their subsistence needs. In such a traumatic situation, ancestors at Ing’yug likely expended all their energy on collecting foods that were easily accessible nearby, while crafts and tool making became secondary – leading to fewer preservable artifacts in the archaeological record.

A pumice abrader found at Ing’yug in 2019. Abraders were used to smooth and refine stone tools.

Another possibility is that when the village was abandoned, people took their tools and belongings with them, leaving little behind for future archaeologists to uncover. While this practice is likely, it would not totally explain the dearth of artifacts, because we did not even find many broken tools or flakes (and no glass trade beads). These items would have been left behind or were easily lost on the floors and in the corners of houses, but even they were largely absent.

Other possible explanations have to do with events that happened since the village was abandoned. Notably, we noticed that some areas of the site, especially a large house behind the main beach berm, had evidence of pot-hunting. Pot-hunting (also sometimes called looting or subsistence digging, depending on the context) includes any intentional digging in an archaeological site that is done without a permit or proper documentation of the ground disturbance and findings. At Ing’yug we found numerous pits that had been dug by pot-hunters, which made it difficult for our team to place test pits in undisturbed locations.

A small ulu found at Ing’yug in 2019. Ulus are traditionally made and used by women. They were produced in various sizes to accommodate many cutting and scraping tasks associated with hide preparation and food processing (especially of salmon!).

Another post-depositional event that could have affected the placement and preservation of artifacts in the village is a tsunami, like the one that hit Kodiak in 1964. The 1964 earthquake and tsunami severely damaged or destroyed several Alutiiq villages on Kodiak, including Kaguyak, Old Harbor and Afognak. The beach berm that supports Ing’yug has a swale cut through it, which may have been caused by the 1964 tsunami. The tsunami could have done some other damage to the site or displaced artifacts. That being said, the OHAHP team doubts that a tsunami disturbed the site badly, because the stratigraphy of the site is largely intact, including a thin layer of volcanic ash that was deposited by the 1912 Katmai eruption.

It is also possible that we simply missed most artifacts when digging our test pits! What other explanations can you imagine?

A stone pestle found in a midden at Ing’yug in 2019.

Now, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that our team uncovered nothing of value in our 2019 field season. We gathered great data from middens about diet, mapped and documented house structures and the stratigraphy of test units, and found a handful of stone artifacts (mostly on the last day of excavation). Excavating a house structure in its entirety will certainly provide even more information that we missed by only digging scattered test pits. I know there is so much more that Ing’yug has to tell us about Sugpiaq/Alutiiq ancestors during this tumultuous period of their history. We just need to be patient and listen.

Middens Galore! Finding Animal Remains at Ing’yug

Erin Gamble holding a bird bone found in a midden at Ing’yug.

During our excavations at Ing’yug this summer, we frequently encountered animal bones and shells. These bones and shells are often piled together with other household refuse in what archaeologists call a midden or trash dump. Middens are usually located near houses (as people did not want to walk far to throw away their trash) and offer archaeologists a view into what people in a particular house were eating and discarding in the past.

[Side note: Studying trash is such an effective way to learn about people’s lives, that there is a whole field called garbology that examines modern day trash to learn about behavior and social identities!]

The middens at Ing’yug are rich and well preserved, including whole bones and shells.

In the case of Ing’yug, a Sugpiaq/Alutiiq village site on Sitkalidak Island, the middens we found are composed of mussel, clam, scallop and urchin shells, sea mammal, fish and bird bone, and LOTS of fire-cracked rock. Hot rocks were used for cooking, smoking fish and steam bathing, but the rocks crack and are less able to hold heat after a while – meaning that they have to be replaced. The broken rocks are tossed into the midden along with the remains of animals that were eaten and/or used for skins. Often, archaeologists also find broken tools or other discarded artifacts in the midden, however, our limited excavations this summer revealed few artifacts among the animal remains and fire-cracked rocks.

OHAHP’s meter-deep midden trench at Ing’yug. (PC: Ben Fitzhugh)

The 2019 OHAHP team spent a couple days excavating a trench into a huge midden mound in front of a housepit at Ing’yug. This midden was very well-preserved and contained whole shells and bones amidst large fire-cracked rocks, demonstrating that Sugpiaq ancestors were eating many varieties of shellfish, seal, various fish, sea birds and even humpback whale! While we did not uncover whale bones in the midden, we found some barnacles from genus Coronula, which only grow on humpback whales. It is likely that whales were butchered where they beached and then meat was brought into Sugpiaq villages.

Coronula diadema, aka a humpback whale barnacle, found in a midden at Ing’yug. (PC: Ben Fitzhugh)

I hope that data from the middens at Ing’yug will be able to tell us not only what people were eating in a given moment, but also how diet changed over time. For instance, do we see a shift in diet following the Russian invasion of Kodiak? With substantial pressure placed on villages to provide tribute to the Russian American Company, Sugpiaq communities had less time to provision themselves – could that result in eating more easily accessible foods, like plants and shellfish, rather than foods that required traveling, like sea mammals? Analysis of dated midden deposits will help the OHAHP team answer that and other questions!

Feel free to reach out to Hollis on Facebook or Twitter (links to the right under “Follow”) if you have questions or comments!

Becoming Acquainted with Ing’yug

View of Tanginak Anchorage, where Ing’yug is located, from our campsite.

It has been an amazing field season on Kodiak! I had the pleasure of participating in two different projects – the OHAHP and a joint Alutiiq Museum/Koniag Inc. project at Karluk Lake – and now feel like a bona fide Kodiak archaeologist.

Following the project at Karluk Lake in June (which you can read about here), the rest of the Seattle-based field team arrived and we travelled to Old Harbor to initiate excavation at KOD-114, an ancestral village on Sitkalidak Island. In the Alutiiq language, this village is called Ing’yug, while Russian colonists and explorers called it Ezopkinskoe. Ing’yug was inhabited by Sugpiaq/Alutiiq ancestors when the Russian fur trader Grigorii Shelikhov arrived in the Kodiak Archipelago in 1784. Subsequent ethnohistoric documentation comes from Russian explorer Yuri Lisiankski, who visited the village in 1805. While a broad written history of Russian colonialism on Kodiak exists, those accounts are often written from the perspective of the colonizer and lack the details of daily life in Sugpiaq/Alutiiq villages during this period of culture contact, resistance, persistence and change. That’s where the archaeology comes in! By studying the materials (i.e. houses, tools, food remains, toys, trash, etc.) that Sugpiaq/Alutiiq ancestors left behind, archaeologists can get a complementary, and perhaps fuller, picture of how those ancestors lived through this period of history.

With that in mind, our 2019 OHAHP team set several goals at the start of the field season for our work at Ing’yug:

  • locate houses and middens (trash piles)
  • map the extent of the village site
  • collect some artifacts and fauna (animal remains) for analysis
  • determine dates of occupation for the village
Erin Gamble lays out a test pit inside a house at Ing’yug.

Overall, these goals were met. (More posts to come about each of the activities mentioned below!)

  • We dug a total of 15 test pits and one trench in order to identify houses with intact stratigraphy and look for diagnostic artifacts that could confirm the age of the site.
  • We collected and documented a sample of animal remains and a few artifacts from the site.
  • We made drawings of the stratigraphy in several of our test pits to better understand what activities may have led to those strata being deposited over time.
  • We made a map of the houses and other structures visible on the surface using a compass, a couple 50-meter tapes and a low-tech surveyor’s tool called a transit.
Hollis setting up the transit for mapping at Ing’yug. (PC: Ben Fitzhugh)

While the stratigraphy (i.e. layers in the soil, both naturally and culturally formed) was largely intact where we dug, we also noticed evidence of pot-hunting across the site. Pot-hunting is destructive to archaeological sites, not only because cultural material is lost, but because information about the location and context of artifacts in relation to other objects, houses and the site overall, are also lost. It’s like losing pieces to a jigsaw puzzle – a jigsaw puzzle that is already missing pieces due to natural processes like erosion and decomposition that occur over time – making it harder to see the whole picture.

Ben taking notes and making drawings of a test pit. It is important to document what we find in archaeological sites, so that knowledge isn’t lost after the ground is disturbed.

We found an abundance of evidence of Sugpiaq/Alutiiq residence at the village of Ing’yug in the form of charcoal-rich layers in the soil, shells and animal bones left over from meals, and a literal ton of fire cracked rocks. What we didn’t find were many artifacts, which surprised us given the extent of the trash piles, or middens. I’ll discuss this more in another post.

Sam Hordeski excavates around a whale bone in a test pit at Ing’yug.

The dearth of artifacts means that estimating dates for the site was impossible in the field, however, we did collect wood charcoal samples, which can be dated using radiocarbon, and shells from the midden, which have growth rings like trees that make it possible to use them for dating. Hopefully these or other dating methods can provide some clarity of timing, so that we can place Ing’yug within the wider story of Sugpiaq/Alutiiq ancestors across the Kodiak Archipelago and beyond.

Stay tuned for more posts about the archaeology of Ing’yug, camping on Sitkalidak and visiting Awa’uq, a refuge rock that Shelikhov attacked when he arrived on Kodiak in 1784.