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.