You are here

A 7,000 Year Journey in Six Alaskan Weeks

Story by
Nancy Joseph
After digging at the excavation site, students sift the dirt through a screen in search of artifacts, some dating back 7,000 years.

After digging at the excavation site, students sift the dirt through a screen in search of artifacts, some dating back 7,000 years.

"The site is an early hunter-gatherer campsite that I found in 1993 as part of my dissertation field work," explains Ben Fitzhugh, assistant professor of anthropology. "It is one of the oldest known human occupations in that region, dating back 7,000 or more years. The goal of the dig was to generate important information about early human colonization of the region and the lifestyles of its early inhabitants."

Fitzhugh taught the course, offered by the Department of Anthropology, with the help of four teaching assistants. Fifteen undergraduates spent six weeks at the site mastering excavation techniques and uncovering artifacts. They also spent time in a makeshift laboratory, processing artifacts that had been collected the previous day.

This was the second summer that the UW's archaeology field course was held in Alaska. "Last year, students had just gotten to the interesting stuff near the end of the summer," recalls Fitzhugh. "So this year's students were spoiled. They got right to the riches."

If you're imagining them digging up large pots and skeletons, think again. Most of the "riches" were flecks of stone, small animal bones, and stone tools. These might not seem like much to the casual observer, but to a trained archaeologist they are exciting clues to an ancient culture.

"We'll look at the abrasion on the artifacts and try to figure out what they were used for," explains Fitzhugh. "Or we'll find food remains--bones, shells--that tell us something about what the people ate. Working with these materials, we try to understand something about human activities at the site and how those may have changed over time."

For some students, it took a while to appreciate the significance of the tiny flecks they'd uncover. "I had never done a dig before," says Dyann Worthy. "It was extremely monotonous work--at first. We were just digging and it was all just dirt and rocks to me. But once we started to put the picture together and realize that people had lived here. there was a whole story to be uncovered. We all started to get really excited. We started to feel like archaeologists."

The students also became more comfortable with the many steps involved in excavation. For every five minutes of digging, says Worthy, an hour of follow-up was required to document the artifacts. The students had to screen the dirt, clean the artifacts, bag them, tag them, give them identification numbers, get precise measurements of their location, make drawings. the steps go on and on. But the payoff was tremendous.

"It was a lot more work than I originally thought," admits undergraduate Jason Cowan, "but it kept getting better and better. Every time I'd find something cool, it made me get more excited and want to work harder."

One of Cowan's most noteworthy finds came early in the trip, when he excavated a scraper, a blade knife, and an ocre grinder right next to each other. "I didn't really appreciate the significance then, because it was all new to me," he says. "It takes a while to really grasp that you're the first person to hold this artifact since someone tossed it on the ground 7,000 years ago. But once you do, it's an amazing feeling."

Classmate Keith Archibald recalls his excitement at finding a matate, a type of grinding stone. "That was a huge high point for me," he says. "No one could recognize the type of rock right away, which made it more mysterious. It was big-6" x 12"-and you could see the use wear marks on the top."

Teaching assistant Jennie Deo displays a projectile point found during excavation.

Teaching assistant Jennie Deo displays a projectile point found during excavation.

The students worked at the site six days a week and attended more than a dozen lectures on topics ranging from excavation techniques to the prehistory of the region. When they weren't working, they relaxed at the group's primitive campsite, about a mile from the archaeological site. For some students, the accommodations--and the brisk weather--took some getting used to.

"It was outrageous," says Worthy. "I did not expect that the tents would get flooded in the middle of the night. And I didn't expect to wear more clothes on a sunny day in Alaska than I wear snowboarding in Seattle in winter. It was crazy, but it was a total blast."

Such primitive conditions are the reality for archaeologists doing field work in uninhabited areas, says Fitzhugh, who warned students about what to expect ahead of time. "Students tend to self-select for the course as a result of our rather blunt course description," he says. "Quite honestly, we tried to terrify students into realizing that they will be spending six weeks in a claustrophobic field camp where it could rain every day and bear encounters are possible. People came with a positive attitude and adventurous spirit."

And they left with an unparalleled sense of history. "I got so much out of this experience," says Cowan. "When you're reading a book, you can think, 'That would be cool to see.' Even in a museum, where you can see things, you can't handle them. In the field, you can pick things up--carefully--and turn them over to get a really good look at them. You get fully immersed. This was definitely the best experience I've had in college."