By Pat Richardson, Army Corps of Engineers' Alaska DistrictMay 23, 2007
NOME, Alaska, (Army Corps of Engineers, May 23, 2007) - Contrary to popular view, Inupiat Eskimos may have lived on the Snake River Sandspit in Nome, Alaska, long before the late 1800s Gold Rush brought thousands of people to the area. New evidence of early Native culture was recently uncovered by Alaska District.
A construction contractor, working on a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project to improve navigation at the Nome harbor, exposed a semi-subterranean house in 2005. Alaska District archaeologist Margan Grover excavated a second semi-subterranean house and trash midden (garbage dump) in 2006, recovering tools, pottery, carvings, and animal bones radiocarbon dated at about AD 1700.
While not old compared to other parts of the world, the 300-year-old find is significant because it reflects Native culture before contact with other people. Alaska was discovered by Russian explorers in 1741, at least 40 years after the Inupiat built these houses and crafted these tools. The archaeological evidence indicates that Native people lived at Nome long enough to build homes rather than just camping to hunt and fish.
"Until this find, people said that there were no Inupiat living on the site until after the Gold Rush," said Ms. Grover. "This confirms they were there before."
The Gold Rush started in 1898, quickly bringing more than 20,000 prospectors and opportunists to the northern beaches that became Nome. Today Nome, a community of 3,500 located 539 air miles northwest of Anchorage, is the supply, service, and transportation center of the Bering Strait region. Since Nome and 26 outlying villages are not connected by road to the rest of the state, the city's harbor is an important link in the region's supply chain.
Nome Harbor was one of the Corps' first navigation projects in Alaska. It was authorized in 1917 and construction of the original project began in 1919. In 2005, Alaska District started a $36 million project to relocate the harbor's entrance channel. The project also included building a new breakwater, adding a spur to the end of the causeway, building a sediment trap, and replacing the existing causeway bridge.
When the contractor cut through the Snake River sandspit to create the new entrance channel, he discovered the first house pit in the middle of the channel in July 2005. The second house pit and a trash midden near the house were uncovered in 2006 beneath seven feet of overburden on the east side of the entrance channel.
While contractors lined the entrance channel with rock in 2006, Ms. Grover began excavation. The National Historic Preservation Act requires that historical and archaeological discoveries at construction sites be removed, catalogued and conserved.
To keep the construction project on schedule as much as possible, Ms. Grover worked long hours and enlisted local Eskimo tribal members and community volunteers to help excavate the sites. Two Alaska District archaeology student hires, Helen Lindemuth and Aaron Wilson, also helped.
Ms. Grover says that the most exciting artifacts found at the sites are a "little man" the size of a small doll but more intricately carved, and an intact pottery cup. She has never seen a figure like the four-inch man carved from ivory at an archaeological site.
The cup is rare because people during the Late Western Thule period (1,050 years ago to about AD 1850) did not have kilns to fire their pottery. They fired their clay at a lower temperature in hot coals, resulting in fragile pieces. No one has ever seen complete pre-contact pottery from an archaeological site in Alaska.
Ms. Grover said a tool cache is another important find because it has a complete set of hunting tools for the time period. The cache includes a net gauge for making fish nets, spearheads, harpoons, and tools made from wood, caribou antler, stone, bone, and ivory.
A throwing stick called an atlatl is interesting because not many have been found at archaeological sites in Alaska. The atlatl was a "launcher" that allowed a hunter to throw spears further and more force than he could with his arm alone.
Three harpoons made of ivory and ground slate are distinctive because the point was made by grinding a smooth sharp edge instead of by flaking. Gut pulls, devices like needles with points at each end, were used for catching birds. The hunter would put a piece of meat on either end of the needle and tie it to a piece of string anchored to a post. When the bird ate the meat, it would swallow the needle. When it tried to leave, the needle lodged in the bird's gullet, effectively tying it to the stake.
Ms. Grover thinks the site was likely occupied late in the summer and into fall. She recovered remains of caribou, sea mammals, and salmon, all animals that come to the area during the late summer and fall. She found tools for hunting all these animals. The little man, drum handles, and other items indicate that the structures may have been used during the festival season, which takes place in winter.
Before carrying the artifacts to Anchorage for documentation, Ms. Grover and community volunteers took the artifacts to the local elementary and high schools. Teachers incorporated local history and archaeology into their lesson plans so the children could relate their lessons to the artifacts.
Ms. Grover also displayed items at the Kawerak and Norton Sound Health Corporation board meetings, at the Nome Eskimo Community center and the Old Saint Joseph Hall so local people could see items from their history and share their knowledge of how the items were used.
After sharing them with community groups, Ms. Grover took the artifacts to Anchorage where she sent three samples to Beta Analytic, a lab in Florida, for radiocarbon dating. They came back dated at 300 to 350 years ago. She also conducted relative dating, comparing the artifact collection to artifacts from other sites that have been dated. This comparison matched the radiocarbon dating results.
Since the artifacts were found on land owned by the Nome, the city owns them. They will be displayed in their local museum, the Carrie M. McLain Memorial Museum.