AD Header Dropdowns

AD Main Menu

Researchers face challenges at Arctic Alaska archaeological site

Abra Stolte-Patkotak

For much of this summer, Anne Jensen and her crew have been working on an archaeological dig at Walakpa, 13 miles south of Barrow. Discovered around mid-July of this year by ATV riders driving along the coastline, the grouping of sod houses became exposed after violent fall storms last year.

After reports started pouring in to various organizations of a sod house with exposed wood and many artifacts lying on the beach, the necessary actions were put into place to prepare a proper archaeological dig.

Through collaboration between Ukpeagvik Iñupiat Corporation (UIC), UIC Science, the North Slope Borough, and UMIAQ LLC, the dig at Walakpa received enough funding to begin excavation in mid-August. While the first two weeks involved mostly removal of top layers of sod, the next month was devoted to clearing out and deciphering the many layers of the sod structure that balances precariously above the coast of the Arctic Ocean.

Jensen has lived in Alaska for over two decades, and specializes in Arctic archaeology. As lead scientist at UIC Science LLC in Barrow and with more than 35 years of archaeological experience, Jensen is very familiar with excavations in harsh climates. Due to very brief summers and early freeze-up, excavating sites in the Arctic requires dedicated and expeditious work.

"Arctic archaeology is pretty labor-intensive and expensive," she says.

Thanks to a RAPID grant from the National Science Foundation, Jensen will be able to devote part of this winter to lab work, seeking carbon dating of artifacts found at the site. Most of this will be done by comparing caribou bone to ivory artifacts such as simple ivory harpoons and spear tips.

Faced with many obstacles such as rainy weather, high tides, procuring ATV's, and having enough able bodies to excavate, the excavation moved forward through all of the difficulties and digging began at the end of July. After setting up a tent for equipment and staking off the area, layer by layer was revealed until a wooden floor was exposed and several pieces of driftwood were removed in order to check their rings for carbon dating to establish an approximate date of the site.

While the current estimated age of the sod house places it possibly as early as 500 A.D., this particular area has been inhabited by Iñupiat people for at least 3,500 years. In 1968, Dennis Stanford led a partial excavation of a group of sod homes in the same area, albeit further back on the tundra and away from the beach.

This summer, Jensen and her crew were able to establish that the area they were working on is a midden, or garbage pit. While a garbage pit may not sound very important or appealing, this kind of well-preserved ancient find provides an extraordinarily valuable snapshot into the history of Iñupiat people. While oral and written history is important, archaeology provides a very unique perspective on lessons we may not otherwise learn.

"There are some things that they don't teach in school," Jensen said. "Some things you can learn from archaeology that don't really get passed on in stories because they're so routine."

Looking forward to next summer, Dr. Jensen is considering ways to expedite the process at the fragile and exposed site. Some ideas for making more headway on excavation are camping at the site and getting field workers to come in from places outside of Alaska. Students coming to Barrow for field school will no doubt leave with incredible insight on the importance of the subsistence way of lifestyle in the Arctic. Setting up an exchange like this may be possible through working with Ilisagvik College in Barrow and getting grants to get students out in the field.

The dig at Walakpa is protected by state and federal law and by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. At the close of the season, the archaeologists were careful to protect the site for next summer.

Steps to ensure that the site remains uncompromised until next summer involved waiting for the ground to freeze up, laying down a layer of insulation, covering it with a tarp, securing the tarp with stakes and rocks and building a makeshift barricade against potentially violent sea storms.

While the threat of Mother Nature wiping out the site this fall is real, archeologists and those interested in the valuable information the site contains can only hope that it will remain intact so that further insight into the history of Iñupiat people may be gained.

This article originally appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.