Middens Galore! Finding Animal Remains at Ing’yug

Erin Gamble holding sea mammal vertebral bones 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!

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