Patrick Saltonstall

Patrick Saltonstall, the Alutiiq Museum’s curator of archaeology, has been helping to unearth Kodiak’s history for over 30 years.

KODIAK — Patrick Saltonstall has conducted more archaeological digs and surveys on and around Kodiak Island than he can remember. If you ask him for a number, you’re likely to receive an incomplete list of just some of the digs he was involved in.

“We did like twenty years of community archeology — we do a dig every year on the road system. We did the Dig Afognak digs at Settlement Point. We’ve done a lot of remote digs for BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) — I’ve worked in Horseshoe Cove and the Alaska Peninsula. We did a dig for Old Harbor Native Corp for their runway. We did a dig at Kiliuda Bay for the BIA. We did some excavations for the US Fish and Wildlife Service at the Olga Lakes,” Saltonstall said. “We’ve done a lot of stuff that’s 3,000-7,000 years old.”

Saltonstall is the Alutiiq Museum’s curator of archeology. He’s lived in Kodiak for over two decades and has been involved in helping to unearth its history for over 30 years.

Saltonstall’s link to Kodiak predates his interest in archeology. His family hails from New England, but his father was a reporter who worked for Time Magazine, which means Saltonstall spent his childhood moving from place to place.

“I was born in Seattle and then we lived in San Francisco and then Washington, DC, and then finally we moved back to Maine, when I was 14 or so,” Saltonstall said. “My dad actually came here in 1967 to cover the crab fishing industry.”

Saltonstall said, years later when he was working on Dig Afognak for Afognak Native Corporation, that his mother asked him if he was “anywhere near Port Wakefield.”

“She’d only been to one place in Alaska, and it was Port Wakefield, which is Port Lions, basically,” he said with a laugh.

Saltonstall became intrigued in archeology as a teenager, watching various archeological digs take place in Maine. As a high school student, he got the opportunity to participate in one of the digs, which cemented his zeal. 

After finishing high school, Saltonstall went to Harvard University to study archeology. He had intended to go back to Maine to join a dig as part of his degree but was advised to branch out and go somewhere different. Someone he met at a site in Maine had a contact at Bryn Mawr College, which had students conducting a dig on the south side of Kodiak Island. 

So, in 1985 at the age of 19 and still a freshman in college, Saltonstall flew to Kodiak to take part in the dig at the Karluk One Site — the dig, he says, that helped birth the Alutiiq Museum.

“That’s the collection that basically created the museum — that’s where all the wood and all that spectacular stuff came from,” he said. “It went to Bryn Mawr and UAF and when the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill happened, they got the money to build the museum and bring those collections back to Kodiak. Then, I just started coming here all the time.”

Karluk One was the site of a 600-hundred-year-old village built at the mouth of the Karluk River. According to information provided by the Alutiiq Museum, from 1983–1995, “a breathtaking array of wood, bone, ivory and fiber objects,” was found at the site. Over a six years period, Karluk One yielded roughly 26,000 objects, providing a rare view of prehistoric Alutiiq life.

Saltonstall still remembers that initial dig, speaking about it with such an excited tone that you’d think he’d just come straight from the site that morning.

“You’d dig down to a house floor and it would be wood planks and you’d walk around on them. You’d be walking on a floor that was 500 years old,” he said. “We were finding spruce root baskets and just incredible stuff.”

Saltonstall soon returned to Kodiak to work at a site in Larsen Bay, just a couple of summers later in 1987. 

After spending some time working in South Africa in the diamond mining industry and a brief stint in the east Arctic, Saltonstall decided to go to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. It was the search for a thesis topic that brought him back to Kodiak in 1994. He returned to work with Afognak Native Corporation on a Dig Afognak site.

Dig Afognak was a community-wide effort to restore and preserve the history of Alutiiq culture. It was largely in response to the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in 1989, which had impacted vast portions of Alaska shorelines, including Kodiak’s, and resulted in damage to many historical sites. 

“I was working on that collection at the museum. It was on my own time because it was dissertation research, but I was always at the museum working on collections,” Saltonstall said. “So I sort of segued my way into becoming a collections assistant.” 

Saltonstall relocated to Kodiak permanently in 1996. 

He said he had always doubted the value of digging up ancient objects only for them to be locked away or used for research that didn’t reach the public. 

“I got into archeology because I thought it was kind of cool, and I liked to find artifacts, but it’s not like you’re saving the world, you’re not finding a new drug or anything,” he said. “I remember having angst about that in grad school and I remember asking a professor: ‘What’s the value in this?’ And he was like: ‘Academic inquiry has a value in and of itself.’ And I didn’t really buy it.”

When he arrived at Afognak, he realized that his field of interest could have tangible, local impacts. In the Alutiiq Museum, he found somewhere that illuminated the true value of archaeological findings.

“All of a sudden I’m at a community-based museum. And I went to an Afognak Native Board meeting, and they were presenting the stuff that I found that summer,” he said. “I was like, ‘Wow, it has value. I’m doing important stuff here. I’m helping find people’s heritage. I’m making people happy.’ It’s very rewarding working at a local museum in that regard.”

Over the next couple of decades, Saltonstall worked his way up through the museum, eventually becoming curator of archeology.

While Saltonstall enthuses over the digs he’s been involved in, he is equally passionate about the archeological surveys that he’s been helping to conduct since the late 1990s. Since the US Fish and Wildlife Service commissioned the first survey, they’ve done them for other landowners, such as Koniag Inc, and are currently conducting one for Lesnoi Inc. 

The surveys, which usually involve a team of just two people, do not involve extensive excavations, but rather the mapping and assessment of historically significant sites. 

“They need to know where the sites are and what’s the condition of the sites and how are they getting damaged — so they can manage their cultural resources on the refuge,” Saltonstall said. “We’ve surveyed all their rivers. Last week, I got to survey the east shore of Alitak Bay. No one had ever been there.”

These excursions mean Saltonstall has never lost the side of his profession that sees him out in the field. On that most recent trip, they found over 30 new sites. 

These surveys were conducted by kayak. 

“I like it better (surveying by kayak), because it gives me an appreciation for the landscape, which helps me find sites and understand why the sites are located where they are,” he said. “We didn’t find sites in certain areas, and because we were in a kayak, we realized: it’s really shallow here and you can only reached the shore at dead high-tide, so of course there’s no site here. Those are the kinds of things we were realizing when you go by kayak.”

This kind of historical sleuthing is an inherent part of Saltonstall’s job. He noted, for example, that while he was working on a survey for Afognak Native Corp, he realized that one of the key features that often denoted the location of a site wasn’t fresh water, but rather a beach that faced two different aspects, so the villagers could launch a boat in any weather. 

Over time, all of these local idiosyncrasies have helped Saltonstall and the museum to build a full picture, which augments the work they do now.

“All the archeology we’ve done has really built on itself. And that’s what’s nice about a local museum. I think most of the time people go to a certain place, do some research and then they’re gone,” he said. “If you’re interested in the Alutiiq people, you come here and all the research is here. We’re like a clearing house for researcher’s in general.”

Saltonstall’s job still provides him with what he calls “aha moments.” In June 2017, he led the team that found a prehistoric stone fish trap dating back to prehistoric times on Afognak Native Corporation land.

“We found the fish trap and on that same survey we were also finding all these types of petroglyphs with pecked holes and circles and stars. And we realized that the fish traps and the holes and stars are related. That was an exciting moment,” he said.

Saltonstall said that they will be returning to that particular site this year to map the fish traps, look for more petroglyphs and conduct further research in the area.

“That’s how archeology works: you do initial work and it helps you do the really good work later,” Saltonstall said. “It helps you formulate the questions.”

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