Reconstructing ancient populations in Alaska

A team of archaeologists excavate a highly disturbed site at Port Clarence, AK. All photos: Shelby Anderson Shelby Anderson spends most summers in the Alaskan bush digging up clues about the peoples who lived there more than 1,000 years ago. Anderson’s work focuses on northwest Alaska’s hunter-gatherer societies that hunted whales, built permanent settlements, and formed trading partnerships and regional alliances with other groups.

We spoke with Anderson in 2010 as she was planning the last of her dissertation field work while at the University of Washington. An Assistant Professor at Portland State University since 2011, Anderson’s got a couple of new irons in the fire. We caught up with her again for a report on her current research.

Her most recent project expands across the Seward Peninsula area with a new site at Port Clarence, where, with support from the National Science Foundation, she is collaborating with the Bureau of Land Management.

The landscape looks desolate, but it was once home to thriving native populations. Anderson and her team are working to piece together an archaeological history of the area.

Last July, Anderson’s team of 15 spent two weeks digging test pits. They found animal bones, some bone and antler tools, pottery, shell and metal fragments, glass, and even nails.

“The site was studied in the 1940’s by Helge Larsen and Charles Lucier, but no research has been done there since,” she says. “It’s a challenging place to work in that the site is threatened by subsistence digging where people dig up artifacts to keep or sell. In addition to subsistence digging, natural coastal processes are acting on the site, [as are] 50 years of Coast Guard occupation near the site, and close to 2,000 years of people living in the area. The soil is really churned up. It makes it tough for us to establish a meaningful site chronology.”

But Anderson is not one to shy away from a challenge.

She and her team are relying on a number of techniques to unearth and understand what occurred at Port Clarence.

Geomorphic analyses by geoarchaeologist Owen Mason will reconstruct changes in the landscape. Radiocarbon dating of bones will yield the ages of the animals. More—the bones will be sorted and identified at the species level. This will help the team understand what people ate while living at Port Clarence and the time of year they spent at the site. Tools, like harpoon points, represent technology for a certain time period and will better establish a Port Clarence timeline.

Ceramic sherds offer relevant clues to the past. However, their excavation and reconfiguration requires extensive patience.

Anderson also aims to find out about past social interaction and exchange networks by analyzing ceramic fragments.

“There is evidence of past ceramic exchange in northwest Alaska and this can tell us something about the way the people interacted across this region and how these interactions changed over time in relationship to both cultural and environmental dynamics,” Anderson wrote in a recent email. “Northern pottery is something of a technological feat. It may not appear as elaborate or ‘beautiful’ (a very subjective and non-scientific term!) as pottery from other times and places, but it represents an amazing ability to manipulate raw materials and the environment.”

Making pottery, she says, helped people adapt to their environment in terms of cooking and storing foods. Finding the pottery sherds and piecing them together requires extreme patience, she says.

“Often, a large number of ceramic samples are found within houses that were occupied semi-permanently,” she says. “But in general one can only make an educated guess about where exactly to excavate and then go from there.  It is part of the fun of archaeology, although it means you don’t always collect exactly the type [or] quantity of data you want.”

Following excavation, Anderson sends samples to the University of Missouri Archaeometry Laboratory for chemical analysis. She also studies the mineralogical composition of the sherds, which helps her link a sample to a general location of production. Anderson is now working with a colleague at Washington State University, Shannon Tushingham, to analyze food residues absorbed into the ceramics. This will yield information about what people were cooking and eating in ceramic pots.

Like following a trail of breadcrumbs, understanding where a ceramic pot originated is a first step in understanding Alaska’s early trade routes as well as which people had access to the raw materials necessary for ceramic construction. Geographic patterns of human settlement and interaction will provide more information about regional cultural identity as well as changes in subsistence, economics, coastal environment, and climate.

“I would say that it is pretty clear that pottery technology was adopted from the other side of the Bering Strait sometime between 2,500 and 3,000 years ago, although we don’t really know why this happened and why at this time. So, there are similarities (in technology and decoration, and change in these attributes) between the pottery on both sides of the strait and across the North American arctic and subarctic.”

Looking forward, Anderson says she would love to collaborate with Russian, Japanese and other researchers to better understand the ceramic traditions that came before the pottery we know from the North American Arctic.

And she’ll likely get her chance - we hope to see her working in the Arctic for years to come.

“Until recently, very little archaeological research in the north used ceramic data to answer questions about social interaction and human behavior in general.  This is an amazing period of maritime adaptation and people becoming more established in coastal communities!”  —Marcy Davis

The following organizations and communities are supporting Anderson’s current research at Port Clarence:

National Science Foundation, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs – Anchorage