Multidisciplinary Pilot Study Explores Tlingit Cairns in Southeast Alaska

Drs. Ralph Hartley (left) and William Hunt exploring one of the cairns. All photos courtesy William Hunt. For many, (semi) retirement is a chance to kick back and relax. But for archeologist Bill Hunt, retirement gave him the opportunity to delve in to unexplored areas of southeast Alaska and uncover the secrets behind manmade rock piles called cairns that dot the landscape.

Hunt spent the first chapter of his career as an archaeologist with the National Park Service (NPS). Now,he is an adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Nebraska where he and his research partner Ralph Hartley are leading a two-year, multi-disciplinary pilot study titled A Multidisciplinary Exploratory Study of Alpine Cairns, Baranof Island, Southeast Alaska.

Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the project brings together archeologists, lichenologists, oral historians, the Tlingit community and others to document, map, date and understand the roles cairns play in Tlingit oral history and culture. His work is also the subject of Cairns Uncovered, an upcoming documentary recently featured on Field Notes.

This month, Hunt talks to Field Notes about his project and shares some initial findings.

FN: What is a cairn?

Documentation of an alpine cairn by UN-L Graduate Student Mike Chodoronek (left), NET videographer Pete Steegen, and OSU Graduate Student Nijmah Ali (right).

WH: A cairn is a manmade pile of rock. They can be very small—just five or six rocks piled on top of one another--or they can be huge. They occur all over the world and are used for a variety of purposes. They can be used to mark burial sites, trails, and are sometimes used to mark where meat is stored. Those are some uses, but there are many, many more.

For the Tlingit, they have a story about a great flood that occurred some time in the un-dateable past in which the Raven caused the water to rise. The water came up out of the ground and the people had to scramble up the mountainsides to keep from drowning. If you ask the Tlingit what these cairns are, they’ll say they are flood markers. Others will tell you that people took refuge from brown bears and other animals in the larger ones.

FN: What do you hope to learn from this multidisciplinary pilot study?

We are interested in finding out how old these cairns are and why they were built. We also want to understand what role the cairns play in Tlingit cultural mythology and oral history.

FN: What made you want to start a project focused on the cairns of southeast Alaska?

UNAVCO LiDAR Engineer Marianne Okal explaining her how her instrument works to OSU Professor Dr. Bruce McCune.

In 2007, I was just finishing a project at Sitka National Historic Site, which is on Baranof Island in southeast Alaska, when a Sitka elder told the park superintendent about how his grandparents, aunts and uncles would tell him that there was a large cairn on top of a nearby mountain. He was wondering if it was actually there and if we could find out anything about it.

Together with the Forest Service, the NPS, Coast Guard and the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, we went to the two mountains. We found eight or nine cairns at one location in the five or six hours we were on the mountain top.  In another trip, we then went to another mountain and documented 14 more cairns.

I was really intrigued by all this because nobody had ever documented these cairns or done any archeology to speak of in the interior of these islands. All the archaeological research has occurred on the coast for various reasons. When we uncovered 24 cairns in such a short amount of time, in two places, that was really enlightening!

FN: Tell us a little more about the different scientific disciplines you are bringing together to document and learn more about cairns.

We have several scientists converging on this area to try to solve the questions surrounding cairns. We have oral historian Tom Thornton, from Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, who is interviewing Tlingit elders in a variety of villages in southeast Alaska to get information about these cairns and see what’s in the oral history.

Then we have a lichenologist named Bruce McCune and a graduate student Nijmah Ali from Oregon State University who are helping us age several of these cairns using lichen growths. This is called lichenometrics.

We also have a team of archeologists--myself, Ralph, Amanda Davey and graduate student Mike Chodoronek--from the University of Nebraska and [we] are working with UNAVCO engineer Marianne Okal to map our survey area with ground-based LiDAR. This will provide a really detailed map of the area.

FN: Is the Tlingit community participating in this project?

The Tlingit community is involved in a couple of different ways. Before we even started this project we met with tribal councils in Angoon and Sitka, and presented them with what we wanted to do [to] see if they had any concerns or recommendations. They were very helpful and very interested because with the loss [of] elders, their cultural “encyclopedias,” they are also losing different aspects of their history. So they were very interested in finding out as much as they can about their past.

We also offered to bring students from both communities to work with our crews while we were up in the mountains. Many students already had summer jobs fishing, but we did have a member of the Sitka community come up and conduct research with us for a couple of weeks.

Some of the field team relaxing in the dining\laboratory tent. From left to right: Mike Chodornek (UN-L), Dr. Ralph Hartley (UN-L), Pete Stegen (NET), Nijmah Ali (OSU), and Dean Einerson (PFS Camp Manager).

FN: What have you and your team learned so far?

One thing that we’ve found is that they vary in size—from small ones with seven or eight big stones to cairns with hundreds of large stones. They have a lot of open spaces – no soil fill inside them. They generally occur as widely spaced features in rows on mountainside benches facing the water. This arrangement made us reject their use as hunting features like blinds or to control the direction of animal movement.

We took some of them partially apart. In some cases we took one-forth or one-half of an individual cairn apart. We did not find artifacts in them or around the margins of the cairns. However, two of the cairns contained a bone, which turned out to be vertebrae from a Sitka deer in each case. We don’t know how old the bones are, or if they are of any significance. What we’ll do is submit soil samples collected under the cairns and samples from each one of the bones to a lab for radiocarbon analysis. Dates from the soils will give us a “not earlier than” date while those from the bones could provide an actual construction or use date if the bones are not modern.

The lichenologist developed a new technique for relatively dating the cairns based on lichen growth by establishing the pioneer lichen species, which [species] grew later, how they overlap, how many different species are present, etc. We should have an idea of which cairns are the oldest and which are newer, as well as the radiocarbon dates.

FN: What’s next?

Now we’re at the point where everyone is looking at the data they collected. We will then prepare a final report for the U.S. Forest Service, the two tribes and the NSF.

Our examination of these cairns was really preliminary. In the future I’d like to do more in-depth investigations of cairns—really take them completely apart and see what’s going on.—Alicia Clarke