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Crews resume excavation at Aleutian archaeological site

Artifacts of Unangam Aleuts may span 1,000 years, expert says

Posted: Monday, July 02, 2007

UNALASKA - In May, an archaeology crew that began work last summer resumed digging at the South Channel Bridge site on Bunker Hill.

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The primary ruins being recovered are the walls of about three houses of Unangam Aleuts.

"It's really a nicely constructed wall, and there was sod in between the rocks," said Mike Yarborough, head archaeologist at the site.

"What's left was dug into the slope, everything else collapsed and fell down the slope," he added, pointing out the slope facing Henry Swanson Drive.

"We followed the natural soil horizon up the hillside," he said.

Currently, carbon dates on samples are in the same range as the ones taken in 2003 by Rick Knecht, the original archaeologist at the site, before he moved away from Unalaska. Yarborough said they haven't found anything older but are planning on testing for younger dates.

"We suspect we'll find samples pointing to about a 1,000-year occupation," Yarborough said.

In 2003, archaeologist Knecht from the University of Alaska Anchorage and Richard Davis from Bryn Mawr College directed a field crew that excavated about one-third of an ancient village site.

The artifacts discovered provided information pertinent to the research of prehistoric Eastern Aleutian cultural history, household archaeology, subsistence technology and adaptations to environmental changes, according to Knecht.

Last fall, the crew didn't begin work until late August. Two things prevented the digging crew from accomplishing a lot. The first was the weather, and the second was when beginning the dig, the crew discovered that the site was approximately double the size they expected.

In September, it began to rain, and Yarborough said it was too muddy in October to get anything accomplished. At that point, a second season was planned.

"The more we dug, the more there seemed to be," he said.

After recalculation and several tests, the crew determined the original estimate done by Rick Knecht in 2003 was under the actual volume.

The crew is funded by the state of Alaska for two months, until the end of July. The bridge construction crew is scheduled to begin work on Henry Swanson Drive on Aug. 15. A two-week buffer window was left in case something unexpected came up.

"Everything is basically the same as last year," Yarborough said. "The only difference is we went from digging on OC (Ounalashka Corp.) land to state land, but that doesn't affect anything we're doing."

When returning to the site in May, Yarborough said it had remained "pretty dry," but after beginning, it rained for about the first two weeks.

Despite a rough beginning because of the weather, the group didn't have the same startup lag experienced last August. Yarborough said it took about a week to get going and become accustomed with the site.

From Henry Swanson Drive, a backhoe has reached up as far as possible, and no more work on the North Face can be done. Now the crew is working on the top of the site.

Last week, the crew reached a milestone when the backhoe was able to get to the eastern edge of the site.

"We're still finding a lot of house features from the top. We're collecting artifacts and sending them to the lab," Yarborough said.

Local archaeologist Jason Rogers has been creating extensive maps of the site throughout the whole process.

"It's good stuff pirate treasure," Rogers joked at the end of a long day.



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