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.