PolarTREC Field Report: Karl Horeis

“I'm getting so into digging for artifacts. I love it. It's so satisfying. It's like reading a good book - once you start, you can't stop. And really, we are turning back the pages of history. To think no one has touched these tools for thousands of years, and then we get to be the one to touch it first. We are the ones to bring them back into the light after eons in the cold blackness below ground.” – Karl Horeis, July 28, PolarTREC teacher

A Motivated Teacher

Meet Karl Horeis (pronounced hore-ice), a super-enthusiastic third and fourth grade teacher from Wheat Ridge, Colorado. Horeis spent two weeks working with an international archaeology team at the Raven Bluff excavation site near Kivalina, Alaska, as part of the  2010 PolarTrec Program.


In the video below, he gives us an introduction to the project during the May PolarTREC orientation in Fairbanks.

Karl Horeis PolarTREC intro

Intrepid Curiosity

Horeis, who met his wife, Kitty (also a teacher) while working in Antarctica, grew up in Portland, Oregon. Throughout his life he explored the West by hiking, climbing, and sailing. Since 2007 he’s been teaching at Foothills Academy, an independent preK-12 school in suburban Denver.

PolarTREC Immersion

Horeis’ journey to Raven Bluff began during the PolarTREC teacher training in Fairbanks in May. Unlike most other teachers, the project's lead scientists live in Fairbanks, so he was able to spend some time getting to know them.


First, Horeis met Jeff Rasic, curator of Archaeology at the University of Alaska Museum of the North and sometimes archaeologist for the National Park Service. Rasic specializes in the archaeology of northern hunter gatherers, particularly the peoples living in Alaska at the end of the ice age.

He also met Bill Hedman, an archaeologist for the Bureau of Land Management (Central Yukon Field Office), who, with a colleague, discovered the Raven Bluff site in 2007. They talked about the upcoming expedition and Rasic gave Horeis a lesson in knapping, the method by which ancient peoples made stone tools from flint, chert and obsidian.

Enlisting and Engaging His Students


Following the training, Horeis returned to Colorado and enlisted his students to help him prepare for the field. First, he salted the school’s garden boxes for a mock dig. Students excavated obsidian tools, corn cobs, pottery shards and some items sent over by.

Next, Horeis brought archaeology a little closer to home by having his class investigate plains peoples and cliff dwellers who lived in and around Colorado. The Denver Museum of Nature and Science sent excavation kit boxes for the kids to dig up real artifacts.


Finally, they talked more about Horeis’ Alaska trip - theories about the Bering Land Bridge and what life was like for the people who lived in northern Alaska 11,000 years ago.

Back To The Field

In July, Horeis flew back to Fairbanks where the field team gathered for required BLM field training. During the aviation course they learned about fire safety and first aid. In the bear awareness class they learned about bear behavior then practiced spraying bear pepper spray. The course culminated in firearms training…just in case.

“We each had to be able to fire 5 rounds from this shotgun in 25 seconds and hit an 8”x11” target at 50’ – pretty wild for an elementary school teacher,” says Horeis

Going Further Afield

After two days in Fairbanks, the team flew to Kotzebue, a small town of 300 people that sits isolated on a peninsula about 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Horeis explored town and familiarized himself with his computer and satellite phone back at the BLM bunkhouse.

Next, a small Cessna flew them to the Red Dog Mine, an open pit zinc-lead mine with an airstrip.  At the Red Dog, they met up with Stan Hermens of Hermens helicopters for their final flight out to Raven Bluff, about 30 miles from the Inupiat village of Kivalina.

Final Destination

The team erected their tent city on a gravel bar adjacent to Raven Bluff on the Kivalina River, a sixty-mile long ribbon that flows from the western Brooks Range to the Chukchi Sea.


Raven Bluff's unique location next to the river and perpendicular to prevailing summer winds resulted in artifacts being quickly buried in thick layers of soil. The researchers hoped to find fluted projectile points – tools like knives and arrowheads, which would provide insight about the earliest peoples to the Americas. Fossilized plants and bits of bone could help constrain the age of the tools as well as provide some insight about what these people ate.

Archeology 101

Horeis spent a couple of days watching and learning from his team, washing and sorting (stone or bone) artifacts. After that, Horeis was rewarded with his own meter square pit – Test Unit #8.

First order of business – remove the turf and waste fill from last year’s survey pits. Next, he carefully scraped away layers of soil, centimeters at a time, using a trowel or hand broom. If he found something right away, he was to sort it.

The remaining soil Horeis shook through a screen and carefully combed over what was left.  His best day of field archaeology was the day he found two microblades, tiny chert precision-cutting tools.

“I was giddy to be the first one to touch this ancient tool [for] very first time in 11,000 years!” Horeis effuses, “These were the ancestors of all Native Americans!”

Roughing It

During two weeks in the field Horeis experienced fog, rain, drizzle, and mosquitoes, managed to fit in a few hikes across the tussocks, surveyed for more sites from a helicopter, and hosted two Kivalina high school students, Tia Adams and Jackie Norton, who came out to help with the dig. The trip ended with a radio interview back in Kotzebue before the long flight back to Denver.

Home Again

Now that school has started, Horeis is eager to share his experience with students. He’s having them excavate again, but this time, Horeis says, it’s a lot more realistic.

He’s assigned four students to each field crew. Each crew measures a one meter unit and then divides it into quadrants so that students have their own area in the excavation pit.

Horeis’ objective, he says, is to “pass on my enthusiasm for archaeology. This is the ultimate detective story. I tell them that archaeology is like puzzle pieces scattered around. We have to find the pieces and put them back together. There is excitement in the mystery and in developing hypotheses. And, of course, the dig is really fun.”

Karl Horeis’ next big adventure: being a dad. He and wife, Kitty, welcomed bouncing baby boy, Holt, in March. So, everyone is happy he’s back from the tundra.  —Marcy Davis