Volunteers to help map prehistoric cave paintings

Posted: Monday, April 10, 2000

Excavate a lost village, record red-ochre cave drawings, discover the history of Gambier Bay - all for free.

The U.S. Forest Service invites volunteers to help at archaeological sites across the country each year, providing food, lodging and adventure in exchange for some basic assistance. This year four sites in Southeast Alaska are on the list of Passports in Time projects seeking volunteers.

The walls of a cabin-sized cave near Prince of Wales Island are covered with paintings. Craig archaeologist Terry Fifield keeps the location secret to keep it safe, but this summer a team of archaeologists, anthropologists, Tlingit elders and two volunteers will record and interpret the drawings.

``This is rather spectacular,'' Fifield said of the 100-by-30-foot cave decorated with about 65 drawings. ``It's one of the best examples of pictographs anywhere on the Northwest coast.''

Some of the drawings are just a few hundred years old and recognizable to the Tlingits living nearby. Others are much older and more mysterious.

Debbie Head is considering joining the cave project, partly because her family's crest, the wood worm, was found painted on the cave wall.

Head volunteered on another of Fifield's projects three years ago. Sifting through the remains of an ancient garbage pit at Point Amargura gave her a new sense of the past, she said.

``We all know our people have been here forever, but you take for granted how it was that they lived,'' said Head, who teaches cultural arts for Craig City Schools.

At the Point Amargura site, Head helped find and identify fish bones, charcoal and fire-cracked rock left in the garbage pit 4,000 years ago.

``We just helped the scientists do their jobs, but at the same time we were learning,'' Head said. ``It was really fun.''

At night, the anthropologist would talk about the area's history, and Tlingit elders would tell their stories.

``I've always been interested in archaeology,'' Head said. ``It was one of the first careers I chose in high school. You know - go to Egypt. Little did I know we're sitting on a gold mine here.''

Volunteers will be among the first people to dig at four Tlingit house pits in Portage Bay, an abandoned village that is known but not yet excavated. Archaeologist Jane Smith hopes to map the site and discover how old it is.

The homes could have been inhabited anywhere from 200 to 4,000 years ago by 100 or more people, Smith said. She expects to find some chipped stones, but no large artifacts.

``It's not an artifact-rich site,'' Smith said. ``Most of the sites aren't because most of the artifacts are made out of wood and bone, and they just don't preserve well over years.''

Archaeologist Karen Iwamoto doesn't know what volunteers will find in Gambier Bay on Southeast Admiralty Island, 65 miles from Juneau. But she knows they'll find something. The area was used by fox farmers. Volunteers will do some library research on the area before going out to survey it, Iwamoto said.

``Archaeology really is kind of a glamorized, scientific treasure hunt in a way,'' Iwamoto said.

In another project, volunteers will use several hundred aerial photos taken of Prince of Wales Island in 1929 to map cultural and archaeological sites.

Applications for the Passports projects are available at the Forest Service Ranger District and are due by April 15. For information about other Passport projects call 1-800-281-9176.

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