Koniag receives grant for archaeological collection

A bone digging stick, two clam knives, a spruce root basket fragment and a bentwood box are part of the Karluk One collection. (Photo courtesy of Karluk One Collection, Koniag Inc.)

Koniag Inc. received a $49,300 grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services to support the Alutiiq Museum’s Karluk One Carlia’arluku project.

The yearlong project, which translates as “To care for Karluk One,” will enhance the care of the museum’s largest archaeological collection.

“In addition to preserving unique pieces of the Alutiiq past, this project will build capacity for the museum and its community,” Alutiiq museum registrar and project director Marnie Leist said.

“Objects from the Karluk One collection will be better organized and documented, allowing the museum and its patrons to use the collection more effectively and pursue new projects that involve its contents, exhibits, publications and art projects,” she said.

The site where artifacts were excavated was unique because of the way the Alutiiq village site at the mouth of the Karluk River was preserved by drainage waterlogging the environment.

“Normally if you would put a piece of wood into the ground, it wouldn’t be there after 500 years,” Leist said. “These are types of objects that just wouldn’t exist otherwise.”

Because of this unique preservation, the museum has been able to obtain a collection of organic artifacts — which Koniag owns and cares for — including spruce root baskets, angyaq (open boat) parts, wood figures and carving tools with beaver teeth still in them.

Many of these artifacts tell a visual story which reveal a lot about Alutiiq culture 500 years ago.

Leist said the organic materials are rare, and a lot of them have their natural pigments. These pigments are usually red, white and black from ochre, charcoal, molybdenite and still unidentified materials.

One of the most exciting pieces Leist has looked at is a part of a box depicting a volcanic eruption.

The site was excavated from 1983 to 1987 before the Karluk River shifted in 1994 and the site was lost. In its heyday, the site was the size of a football field.

Back then, the artifacts were taken out of the site and treated with a conservation process called PEG. In this process the items were covered in a waxy substance to make sure they didn’t crack or break.

Back then it wasn’t an established process.

“Some artifacts are over-PEGed or dry and brittle,” Leist said. “We really need to address the conservation.”

To help with the conservation, an expert from the Alaska State Museum will come to Kodiak and help assess the needs of the collection.

Leist said documentation has been worked on for the items since the 1980s. Sometimes they have been successful, and other times not so much.

“In one case there’s gaming discs,” Leist said as an example. “People used to think they were to get clams to come out — but it was an actual game people played.”

Leist will go over all of the 20,000-plus items and make sure the identification is consistent and as accurate as possible.

“I’ll be really busy over the next year,” she said.

She has been slowly working with the collection for the last five years, but thanks to the grant the museum now has the funds to pursue the almost full-time effort.

Another part of the project will be to broadcast pieces on the Alutiiq Museum Facebook page and through e-mail monthly.

Mirror writer Louis Garcia can be reached via e-mail at lgarcia@kodiakdailymirror.com.

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