UAS students digging for clues of past

Excavation of future trail reveals apparent water wells, fox farm

Posted: Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A trail of the future has led a University of Alaska Southeast archaeology class on a trail to the past.

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Nearly 20 students and volunteers are surveying and excavating areas near campus where the city and the university plan to build a nearly $1.2 million trail around Auke Lake. To ensure the planned trail does not disturb any historic or cultural properties, anthropology professor Daniel Monteith offered to lead a group of students to discover what may be buried beneath and around the intended route.

"What we're doing here is community archaeology," he said. "It's an opportunity for all of us to learn more about our recent history and maybe a much older history."

Monteith said if the city intends to use money on the trail obtained from the federal government it must do an assessment of archaeological resources in accordance with the National Historic Preservation Act.

The students and volunteers began the course with an "intensive pedestrian survey" and found much more than they expected, Monteith said.

"You just kind of line up almost like a search and rescue line, and that's how we started finding all this stuff back here," he said.

The team stumbled across several sites that appear to be water wells from the early 20th century, and also what they believe to be a fox farm from the same period between Chapel by the Lake and the UAS campus.

"According to local stories, there was a cabin in that general vicinity, and there was a fire there, and they might have even stored dynamite in the attic of the cabin," Monteith said.

After locations were found that have potential historic significance the students began digging 1-square-meter test pits to inspect what objects may be hidden from the eye.

"Once they started the test pit we knew we probably had the fox farm cabin because we found charcoal, we found a high concentration of all kinds of metal objects and the students even found some of the mesh type chicken wire that I've seen that are used for the fox farm pens," he said.

Lacey Smith was excavating a test pit last week near what appeared to be a well line with dilapidated milled wood only a stone's throw off of Glacier Highway.

"We don't actually know if they were mining up here or what," she said.

The students participating in the archaeological dig are not all anthropology students. Smith is an environmental science student going into her fourth year at the university.

"I have always been interested in anthropology, and archaeology especially," she said. "I just saw this class as an opportunity to get some upper division non-science credits, as well as get my fingers dirty."

The class also consists of a number of Native students assisting in the search for potential Tlingit fish camps or village sites. Michelle Martin, a Tlingit student majoring in anthropology, said the dig provides clues to the different cultures that have called the lake home over the centuries.

"It's like the layers of different people," she said. "Just like the ground as we dig we see the different layers. It's like generations, digging down we go further down."

Summer Beagle, who also focuses her studies on anthropology, said having the chance to do an archaeological dig so close to campus is a lucky opportunity.

"This school doesn't really offer a lot of archaeology classes so it's been a huge privilege," she said. "As you can see of the enrollment, a lot of people are interested."

Monteith said he hopes the students will get an up-close and personal experience of the discipline of archaeology.

"More than anything, what this class provides I think is an incredible opportunity to learn methods and processes in archaeological surveying and excavating," he said.

Monteith said some of the students will work on an ethnohistory report of the area after they are done excavating.

UAS spokesman Kevin Myers said some of the information may be used for interpretive signs around the trail, possibly about the pre-contact history and the homestead era.

"They're looking to break ground probably some time in the fall on this trail project," he said.

Monteith said the archaeology is not intended to halt the trail project, but to learn about history that might be hidden from sight.

The survey will not get in the way of the project, he said.

"We do care about the path going around the lake, but we're also making sure that we don't go over any historical stuff that will teach the kids in the future that there was something here, not just a path," Martin said.

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