What’s behind the wall? Russian history

Archaeologist Sarah Corbin prepares to measure some of the deliberately stacked rocks uncovered during the excavation for a new retaining wall surrounding the Erskine House. (Wes Hanna photo)

Excavation work for a new retaining wall for the Baranov Museum Saturday unearthed a part of Kodiak history when an on-site archaeologist recognized deliberately stacked rocks and old wood planks in the exposed earth. She then began documenting what is most likely a structure from the era of Russian colonization.

The find was not completely unexpected. For the 200th anniversary of the museum building, known in Kodiak as the Erskine House, a 2008 community archaeology project excavated two pits near the area of the retaining wall. The archaeology project was conducted in partnership with the Alutiiq Museum.

Found in those excavation pits was similar wood planking, said archaeologist Sarah Corbin. One of the pits included a gunflint that was linked with the Russian era (1743-1867).

In layers below the wood planking were chert flakes, remains from before Russian colonization, Corbin said.

With this find just a few feet away from earlier excavations, Corbin said she feels strongly the new find is a continuation of those structures and therefore dates from the Russian era.

There are other clues as well. Spread throughout the excavation are pieces of brick of various sizes, from slivers to the size of a fist.

“I was just looking at some of the bricks that had been excavated in 1985 out at the Russian kiln.” Corbin said. “Just looking at those, there’s sort of an example of Russian bricks. I feel like these are definitely very possibly the same material.”

When the bricks were placed is unknown, and they may have been reused many times, she said.

More information may come from bits of broken dishes found in the excavation. Through a diagnostic on the patterns found on the dishes, archaeologists can tell both where they came from and when, Corbin said.

One thing is certain from the stratigraphy: The find is older than the 1912 eruption of the Katmai volcano. The layer of ash is identifiable above the wood planks. The wood itself is probably too degraded for carbon-14 dating.

Corbin, from Anchorage, is an archaeologist for Territory Heritage Resource Consulting, the company that performed the nearby excavations in 2008. They provided an on-site archaeologist because of their relationship with Baranov Museum director Katie Oliver.

“Katie really wanted to make sure that someone was here because she had a feeling that we might be close (to the other archaeology sites),” Corbin said.

Neither state nor federal money is involved in the construction of the new retaining wall, so there is no requirement to have an archaeologist on site.

The company is volunteering its time for the project, Corbin said.

When the new retaining wall is ready to go up, a tarp will be placed between any historic structures and the fill material so the material does not contaminate the site, Corbin said.

The replacement project for the retaining wall around the Erskine House began Wednesday. The previous custom-made wall had cracked and began leaning out over the sidewalks on Center Street and Marine Way. On Marine Way, the wall was leaning on a Kodiak Electric Association transformer.

The Kodiak City Council allocated about $215,000 for the project.

Construction of the retaining wall will not be delayed by the archaeological find, Corbin said.

Mirror writer Wes Hanna can be reached via email at whanna@kodiakdailymirror.com.

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