With every scrape of the trowel, a dozen college and high school students, interns and volunteers like me dug a little deeper into Alutiiq history.
Under a cloudy sky that threatened rain, we dug in Womens Bay along Salonie Creek at an archaeological location known as the Kashevaroff site, named for its close proximity to Kashevaroff Mountain.
Since 1997, the Alutiiq Museum has held “Community Archaeology” giving community members the chance to participate in an archaeology dig under the supervision of museum staff.
Over the years, they’ve excavated at 10 sites in and around Womens Bay. The month-long dig provides credits to college and high school students, new artifacts for the Alutiiq Museum’s collections, and education on how the Alutiiq people have used the Womens Bay area in the past.
Originally presumed to be a small archeological spot, the Kashevaroff site has turned out to be expansive, so much so that 2015 is the third year Community Archaeology has been held at the site.
At the top of the site, cow bones have been found from cattle ranching before 1912 followed by a 300-year-old fish camp and older camps dating back thousands of years, said Alutiiq Museum curator of archaeology Patric Saltonstall during volunteer orientation on June 9.
Wednesday was the third day of the four weeklong dig. I arrived at the Alutiiq Museum shortly before 8:15 a.m. As the other participants and I waited for the last few arrivals, people checked the weather on their phones. Rain was expected.
We carpooled out to Womens Bay. I rode with Catherine West, a Boston University professor who co-leads the dig with Saltonstall, and three college students and one recent graduate.
As we pulled out of the Alutiiq Museum, they said they had to ask my opinion of Taylor Swift before I asked any questions. I replied that I much preferred her country music, but I did like a couple of her more recent pop hits.
I found out that except for West, who has helped with Alutiiq Museum digs for years, none of the vehicle occupants had been to Alaska. The students and former student had all studied under West, who had recruited them for the dig.
“Here little bear,” West said as we drove to the far side of Womens Bay. The ones who had never been to Alaska before were hoping to see bears before they left Kodiak, and I informed them I had seen a sow with cubs in Anton Larsen Bay while kayaking over the weekend. They determined they would head there when they had some free time in hopes of finding it.
After arriving at the parking area off the Chiniak Highway, we piled out of the car and pulled on our rain gear and backpacks for the 10-minute hike. The trail took off as a wide four-wheeler trail but only stayed that way for a few yards before turning into a narrow trail — just wide enough for one person — that meandered along Salonie Creek, through the edge of a marshy area and up a hill to the Kashevaroff site.
During the first two days, the dig participants pulled off the first layers of ground. Grass and sod along with a very distinctive layer of grey, light brown and yellowish ash from the 1912 Katmai-Novarupta volcanic eruption had been removed to reveal dark brown earth.
The pit along with two other pits a few yards away were all marked off with small flags into one-meter squares.
I was handed a trowel, a dustpan and two 5-gallon buckets. Natalie Wadle, the museum’s collections assistant, assigned me a square to dig and knelt beside it.
Just scrape it off like this keeping it pretty flat, Wadle told me, using the trowel to scrape a couple of centimeters of dirt off the top of my square.
I knelt in a square next to mine that was much lower and began to scrape up the dirt. I was attempting to remove all the dirt, about eight inches, to the next layer, which was more reddish in color. As I dug, the dirt turned into a rainbow of varying shades of darker brown, black and slightly red mixed in with small pieces of charcoal. It was from old fires.
All of the dirt I removed was scooped into the dustpan and placed in the buckets. Saltonstall took all the buckets and dumped them one at a time onto a screen. The dirt and rocks scratched against the screen and fell through the grate as Saltonstall shook it.
“This is a big piece of charcoal,” Saltonstall said from atop the pile of screen dirt. “Who is ‘tall white?’”
Our buckets were color coded, so the screener would know which artifacts came from which area.
After glancing around, I realized it was my bucket. Saltonstall said the larger pieces of charcoal could be kept to use for radiocarbon dating. He gave the piece to Wadle who fetched a plastic baggy for the piece.
She marked the bag with the date and a series of letters and numbers that indicated the site, the square and the layer in which the piece was found along with the initials of the finder and left the bag next to my square for any additional things I might find.
As I dug, I started out carefully examining every rock my trowel clunked against for any signs of workmanship, but as the morning wore on, I started examining fewer, ignoring the larger and bulkier chunks.
I called for Saltonstall on one piece, but he said it was only fire-cracked rock.
Two hours in, I set down my trowel and discovered I had a blister on my index finger. I covered it with a patch of moleskin, borrowed a pair of gloves from Saltonstall and returned to work.
I found a large piece of green chert that showed signs of work along the edge. Saltonstall said it was from the Alaska Peninsula and was a piece that had been chipped off during the process of making a tool. I also found pieces of flaked stone.
At lunch, we headed down to the banks of Salonie Creek for lunch. As we ate, it began to rain.
After lunch, most of the participants rolled over for a short nap before we headed back up to the site.
Throughout the afternoon, the rain came and went. “I’m within a minute of calling it in when it stops,” Saltonstall said.
One of the diggers found part of an ulu while another digger found a point. While digging, we heard a cheer from the other pit. They had also found an ulu, this one with a hole in it.
As I dug, I came across grey earth, which Saltonstall said was ash from an eruption older than Katmai. Part way through the afternoon, I finished my square, scraping it down to red earth and headed for another pit, this one overseen by Catherine West.
It was raining enough that the pits were becoming muddy. Mud caked the trowels, dustpans and buckets. Few of the squares were level, so we routinely slipped while moving around.
As I removed dirt down to the reddish layer, West observed and told me I was a natural.
Part way through the afternoon, Saltonstall came walking up with an oval-shaped rock with indents in both ends found in the pit I had previously been digging in. He handed it to West and said it looked like a net weight, but he didn’t think net weights would be found in that level and area, and it could potentially also be a hammer stone.
“Show it to Marnie,” Saltonstall said.
Curator of collections Marnie Leist took the stone and examined it and determined it was indeed a hammer stone. The dents on the ends came from repeated striking with the stone.
I was just finishing up my new square, scraping it down to red earth as well, when Saltonstall decided it was raining hard enough to quit. We exited the holes and began cleaning up, scraping the accumulated mud off our equipment. The buckets were placed on their sides in the pits, so they wouldn’t accumulate water and the rest of the equipment was stored as well.
After trekking most of the way back to the vehicles, we paused at Salonie Creek to rinse the mud that caked everything.
I scooped up handfuls of water to rinse my pants and coat, but two others stripped off their rain jackets and dunked the whole thing in the river.
“I hope it dries before tomorrow,” one said.
After stripping off the rain gear, we piled back into the cars for the journey back to the museum.
Although it had been a dreary day and I had found, as Saltonstall put it, “Nothing worth photographing,” the day had been fun and a learning experience.
Maybe I’d have to find the time to go out again.
Julie Herrmann is a staff reporter at the Kodiak Daily Mirror. Contact her at 486-3227 ext. 627.