Story last updated at 1:20 p.m. Saturday, August 31, 2002

Dig provides glimpse into early Native culture
By Chris Bernard
Staff Writer

photo: news
  Photo provided by the Pratt Museum
Dr. Aron Crowell speaks to a group of people from the communities of Nanwalek and Port Graham at the edge of a house pit uncovered during an archeology dig in Aialak Bay recently. Shown from left are Dorothy Moonin, Natalie Kavasnikoff, Anesia Metcalf and Sperry Ash.  
Three Homer High School students are digging in at the Pratt Museum.

As part of an ongoing project that mixes archeology and oral tradition, the students -- interns at the Pratt -- recently spent two weeks on an archeology site in Aialik Bay in Kenai Fjords National Park. The project is a collaboration between the museum, the Smithsonian Institution's Arctic Studies Center and the Park Service, along with the communities of Port Graham, Nanwalek and Seldovia.

The dig team also included Robert McMullen from Port Graham and Sperry Ash from Nanwalek, as well as the three high school interns, Brie Miles-Brache, Travis Hines and Dylan Anderson.

"The exciting thing about this was the collaboration with the people of Port Graham and Nanwalek who went out there," said Gale Parsons, education director and supervisor of the interns.

Dr. Aron Crowell, of the Arctic Studies Center, headed the team, which also included three graduate students from the University of Alaska's Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses, and from Berkeley.

The dig occurred on Park Service land on the peninsula's outer coast, where Russian, British and Spanish vessels made contact with a resident Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) population during the 18th and 19th centuries, recruiting Natives as sea otter hunters. Alutiiq elders in Nanwalek, Port Graham and Seldovia still tell stories about their grandparents and earlier generations who came from Prince William Sound to Aialik Bay, along with Yalik, Dogfish Bay and other outer coast villages.

The Aialik Bay site is one of more than 30 known archaeological sites in the area ranging in age from 100 to 1,800 years old. The site was discovered in 1993, Parson said.

"Following the oil spill, Exxon was charged with paying for site surveys on the outer coast, and they actually found numerous sites," she said.

Crowell was one of the archeologists who did those surveys, and nine years later returned to the site to dig.

Based on carbon dating done in 1993, the Aialik Bay site is estimated to be between 600 and 800 years old.

photo: news
  Photo provided by the Pratt Museum
University of California Berkley student Bill Parker, foreground, University of Alaska Anchorage graduate student Nicole Tozzi and Homer High School student Dylan Anderson sift through dirt in Aialik Bay recently.  
"What we did was unearth 25 square meters to a depth of about 1 meter, and discovered some really wonderful things, including a house pit that some of the archeologists had never seen before," Parsons said. "The house pit we found probably belonged to several families, and we did dig up at least one other house pit.

"We also found an incredible whaling lance, and a skinning knife made out of greenstone, which is not native to the area and would have had to have been traded for, as well as ulus, harpoon points and arrowheads."

Also found on the floor of the house pit were several complete knives and other unbroken tools.

"There were broken tools outside the house, but it was suggested by some that the number of unbroken tools in the house relates to the practice of leaving the houses stocked for others."

It was that kind of interpretive approach to the dig that set this project apart from other archeological digs, he said.

"For some of the residents of the Native communities, there is a lot of traditional knowledge that explains some of the features of the site," he said.

For example, the team found an unusual cooking hearth in the house pit it uncovered.

"There was no charcoal in it," Parsons said. "We weren't sure what it was used for at first."

The team quickly figured out that what they'd found was a piece of early ingenuity.

"There were these rock slabs, and when we lifted up the slabs, we found charcoal beneath them," she said. "We realized the fire had been put under them, and the slabs would be heated and used to cook on."

"It had the appearance of a facility for roasting," Crowell explained. "When (Alutiiq tradition-bearer) Nick Tenape came out to work with us on the project, he suggested that it was in fact a roasting facility for the traditional practice of roasting bear and seal meat."

Crowell said the team also found fragments of burned bone.

"One elder suggested that this practice was related to the old custom of burning bones to bring about better weather," he said.

Parsons and Crowell plan to exhibit objects from the dig at the Pratt Museum, she said. "We're also putting together two videos, his on the research and the archeology, and ours on oral traditions."

Crowell's film will be produced for use in schools, local museums and the public visitor center at Kenai Fjords National Park.

"The (project) will continue for the next two years, and work will be done at different sites," Parsons said. "The plan is to do two more digs, at least. Those will be opportunities for students in Homer to participate."

Interns in the museum's Kachemak Bay Discovery Program get paid to mentor with scientists, she said. Students are chosen based on applications and interviews. "This time it was weighted for those with a big interest in archeology and camping," she said.

Camping experience was preferred because the conditions onsite can be miserable at times, she said.

"I didn't know what to expect, but I learned to map and to do profiling, and how they really dig," said 16-year old Miles-Brache. "It was really fun."

Anderson, a 15-year-old sophomore, agreed.

"We did some pretty cool stuff. Travis (Hines) and I got to do things like surveying, and setting up the grid," he said. "We found some pre-formed slate points, which are like unfinished arrowheads, and a pebble scraper, which is a quick tool for cleaning. We also had some good sunny weather."

The weather did not hold up for the two weeks that Miles-Brache spent on the site.

"It rained for nine days while Brie and I were out there, and I have to give her credit," Parsons said.

Still, the crew made the best of the situation.

"We definitely worked hard, but we had a great facility," she said. "We had tarps we could tie up over sites, and it was a pretty genial bunch of people."

The six-week dig ended July 31.

Chris Bernard can be reached at