KODIAK — “That looks like a rock to me,” a potential archaeology volunteer said about a picture of an ancient Alutiiq artifact.
Others who gathered at the Alutiiq Museum on Thursday evening for an introductory meeting about the 2011 community archaeology project quickly reassured her. With a little experience, a cutting tool or fishing weight skillfully crafted thousands of years ago will become as recognizable as a dinner fork.
Alutiiq Museum curator Patrick Saltonstall zipped through 7,500 years of local history in an hour-long presentation to put in perspective the upcoming three-week project, when he and his helpers will lead volunteers in excavating a site on the rifle range in Womens Bay.
Beginning Monday, they will trek to the site five days per week to dig into the early years of human settlement on Kodiak.
“We do get to see pretty cool stuff,” said Saltonstall, who believes the area may hold sites that can beat that 7,500-year mark.
“I know they exist,” he said.
Saltonstall admits the work can get dirty, and sometimes volunteers find the first day’s activity discouraging, especially if they are sensitive to pushki burns. Before the serious archaeological digging begins, the team has to clear vegetation and dig into ash from the 1912 Katmai Volcano eruption.
But some participants return year after year, looking for new insights in each new site.
“I’ve been on more of these than any other volunteer,” Leslie Watson said. “Now that I’m retired, I can do it as much as I want.”
Watson said she likes working out the puzzles earlier Kodiakans left — house pits, middens and artifacts — and learning how people used to make their living in the same area she does now.
As an employee of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Watson had to miss some years of community archaeology because she was doing crab surveys in the Bering Sea, but appropriately, one of the most memorable things she unearthed was an unbroken 1,000-year-old sea urchin.
She said the experience has opened doors for her, making it possible for her to have a hand in important digs on Unalaska Island.
Watson took part in Kodiak’s first community archaeology project, when it began serendipitously in 1997.
Back then, as the National Marine Fisheries Service building was going up on Near Island, the intake valve for the building’s giant aquarium required mitigation work, but no money was budgeted for it. With the help of borough employee Bud Cassidy, the Alutiiq Museum stepped in with volunteers under professional guidance and excavated the site.
“And it’s gone on ever since,” Saltonstall said.
The results of the community project have gotten attention in serious academic circles, proving it’s not a casual or amateur undertaking, and everyone on the dig learns proper scientific procedures.
“We’re cutting edge,” Saltonstall said.
Volunteers have the option of working for high school and college credit. For that, they must complete reading assignments, take daily notes and write a final paper. Some young participants have gone on to pursue doctorates in related fields.
“Whether you go on to archaeology or not, it’s a worthwhile experience,” Saltonstall said.
Project volunteers seem to get most excited when they find artifacts like ulus or blades, but Saltonstall’s favorite discovery is a house.
“Hopefully we’ll find a 5,000-year-old house,” he said. “That would be my dream.”
He thinks house layouts tell more about how people lived, and he offers a perk for people who discover an ancient dwelling: “If you find one, we’ll name it after you.”
Another interesting aspect of the community archaeology project is the rare opportunity for archaeologists to spend several years investigating many sites around Womens Bay, building a picture of culture and habitation over thousands of years. Saltonstall called it a “perfect design” for long-term study.
“We’re getting to know this area pretty well.” He said.
The written history of Kodiak goes back only to the arrival of the Russians 150 years ago. But since ancestors of the Alutiiq people apparently arrived by boat about 9,000 years ago, that written history only covers 3 percent of known human settlement around Kodiak.
Participants in the community project get to help write the other 97 percent, Saltonstall said, and “the only way to do it is by archaeology.”
Previous community digs have expanded the picture of the different kinds of camps earlier settlers used and how they spent the year, and Saltonstall thinks this summer’s work will add more interesting details.
“The coolest things you learn you didn’t expect,” he said. “I don’t really know what we’re going to find.”
Contact Mirror writer Drew Herman at firstname.lastname@example.org.