Dig reveals 1,500-year-old midden near Barrow, AK

AK Anne Jensen 20110826_Jensen_IPY
AK Anne Jensen 20110826_Jensen_IPY

Archaeologist Anne Jensen, a lead scientist at Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation (UIC) near Barrow, AK., is used to racing the elements in her short work season. In 2009, we reported on her Nuvuk Archaeology Project, and we’ve been following her activities from afar.

Now it seems the past few months have been a whirlwind for Jensen as she’s raced to excavate an Iñupiat midden at Walakpa, 13 miles south of Barrow. The midden was discovered this summer by recreationists on ATVs exploring the coastline who came upon a grouping of exposed sod houses.

The discovery launched a rapid coordination effort to survey, excavate, and save the artifacts that were scattered along the beach. According to an Oct. 4 story in the Arctic Sounder, a collaboration between UIC, UIC Science, the North Slope Borough, and UMIAQ LLC, resulted in funding to allow excavation beginning in mid-August.

Initially, the workers removed the top layers of sod, and then spent September clearing out and “deciphering the many layers of the sod structure that balances precariously above the coast of the Arctic Ocean,” according to the article.

Specifically, the team set up a tent for equipment and staked off the area, then removed layer after layer until they exposed a wooden floor and several pieces of driftwood. These will undergo carbon dating to establish an approximate date of the site. Initial estimates suggest the area could have been built as early as 500 A.D.

As they worked, Jensen and her crew confirmed the site is a midden, or garbage pit. This trove offers well-preserved ancient artifacts that will provide insight into the history of Iñupiat people.

This winter a RAPID grant from the National Science Foundation will allow Jensen to analyze the artifacts in the lab.

And next summer, Jensen will continue the excavation. She told the Arctic Sounder that she’s considering camping at the site and getting field workers to come in from places outside of Alaska to expedite the excavation. Potential exchanges may be possible with Ilisagvik College in Barrow and getting grants to get students out in the field.

In the meantime, the site is closed and protected for winter. Jensen and her team covered the site with insulation and protective tarps to barricade against the inclement weather.  Read more about Jensen's work on her blog "Ice and Time." —Rachel Walker