Road project reveals archaeological sites

By Joseph Robertia
Kenai, Alaska (AP) 7-08

The completion of the newly paved road along Kalifornsky Beach Road is a sign of modern infrastructure, but archaeologists doing exploratory survey work related to the construction project have uncovered evidence of a much older society.

“We’ve found sites from the street light (at Bridge Access Road) to past Cannery Road. It’s a very historic corridor,” said Dan Thompson, a state archaeologist with the Office of History and Archaeology in Anchorage.

The sites are believed to have belonged to the Alaska Native people known as the Dena’ina, a lineage of Athabascan Indians that are also the ancestors of the modern Kenaitze Indian Tribe. And, while the road expansion project will continue to move forward despite the find, archeologists set out to identify these sites in the state-owned right-of-way, and remove and preserve any culturally valuable materials that could otherwise be destroyed by the planned construction.

“We started the initial survey last summer, then this spring we began digging test pits at six meter intervals -- 28 test pits total, which led to the discovery of this site,” Thomspon said referring to an area on the east side of Kalifornsky Beach Road, roughly half a mile south of Bridge Access Road, which has now -- for archaeological purposes -- been dubbed site KEN-475.

From the survey, archaeologists discovered the remnants of a 10-by-20-foot house pit where as many as a dozen Dena’ina people may have lived, several cold storage cache pits where fish was stored through winter, and the remnants of a few fire pits where food was cooked and where tools were made while the inhabitants attempted to stay warm.

So, with trowels in hand, and brushes and screens to sift through the soil for tiny artifacts, the archaeologists began the time-consuming work of excavating the site -- not just digging up artifacts, but also taking photographs, drawing maps of individual features of the site, recording in detail the location and context of each find, and even bagging samples of soil from the site.

“We try to cover the whole area as systematically as possible. We have a responsibility to record as much as we can about the site, and our findings, because it’s like taking a page out of a history book once an artifact is excavated. We only get one shot to get it right,” Thompson said.

As it turns out, their digging was not in vain. According to Thompson, many artifacts and old animal bones were found that may give a better glimpse into the behaviors of these past peoples, particularly since they left no written records of their own.

“We found a mix of Native and European artifacts. We found two types of European beads. One is red with a clear center that is Venetian in origin, but that Russians shipped all over. The other bead is smaller and white, but we’re not 100 percent certain of the origin yet,” he said.

These beads would have been a trade good, highly prized by the Dena’ina, who would have integrated them into their clothing and jewelry.

“Along one of the walls and in the fire pits we found a number of beaver bones, some bird bones from what was probably a grouse, salmon bones, and some smaller fish bones from possibly hooligan or trout. All of this tells us about their diet at the time,” he said.

Thompson said they also found tools for hunting these animals, including two distinctly different projectile points.

“We found a spear point made of antler, and a harpoon tip also made of antler which was possibly used for hunting seal,” he said, although the Dena’ina also were known to use harpoon arrows for taking king salmon, and possibly other salmon species, by shooting them from a bow with a line and a float attached.

Anything hunted must also be cleaned, and Thompson said there were artifacts recovered that may have served this purpose.

“We found bits of iron, some shards of Russian ceramics, and some window glass and bottle glass from rum or other spirits. It looked like they had fashioned a scraper from the glass,” he said.

All of these artifacts helped the archaeologist isolate a probable time frame that the site was occupied.

“All indicators -- based largely on using the beads and Russian pottery as a time marker -- date the site around 1800 to 1820. It’s one of a handful of sites in this region from this time period, and with it being rich in archaeological deposits, it can tell us a lot about some of the first interactions between Natives from this generation and Russians. It will be interesting to compare the artifacts we’ve found with collections from earlier periods, to see what has changed with their tool manufacturing, diet, et cetera,” he said.

Thomspon was alluding to the analysis phase of the archaeological project, which is done to gain as much data from the artifacts as possible. They will be cleaned, catalogued, and as he said, compared to collections with similar artifact assemblages in order to better date and classify them. After that, they will be available for return to the local community, such as for educational display in a local museum or cultural center.