Juneau woman discovers relic

Archaeologist digs up 3,000-year-old mask made from whalebone

Posted: Friday, August 17, 2007

July 2 was shaping up as a typical day in the Unalaska dirt for Juneau-born Shawna Rider, an archaeologist with the Anchorage-based Cultural Resource Consultants.

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The 26-year-old and her four colleagues were excavating a 3,500-year-old village site in the path of a planned $28 million bridge between Amaknak and Unalaska islands in the Aleutians.

Rider was exploring a small section with a shovel, when all of a sudden she saw something sticking out of the earth.

It was two pieces of a shattered, 3,000-year-old Unangam whalebone mask, perhaps the oldest such mask found.

"It was definitely exciting to see," Rider said Thursday, from Dutch Harbor. "This whole site is just amazing. (The mask) just kind of adds to it. It's one of many cool things that we saw out here."

Based on previous C-14 radiocarbon analysis from the part of the site where the mask was found, the archaeological team believes it may be 3,000 years old.

The next-oldest Aleut mask, discovered in Izembek Lagoon near Cold Bay, is about 1,000 years old.

Rider grew up in Juneau and earned her undergraduate degree at Southern Oregon University.

She's worked for Cultural Resource Consultants on and off for four summers. She's pursuing her master's degree in cultural resources management through the University of Alaska Anchorage.

"Last year was super wet when we were out here," Rider said. "This year's we've had pretty great weather. It's been an amazing summer."

Cultural Resource Consultants is a private cultural resource management company. It's often hired for archaeological and survey projects when construction projects are planned in an area.

In this case, the Federal Highways Administration and the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is replacing a 28-year-old wooden bridge between the two islands with a 700-foot concrete span.

The site runs right through the village, which was occupied for about 1,000 years and contains about 50 homes. The state has spent roughly $1.65 million on its excavation, according to a July 28 story in the Anchorage Daily News.

The two-year "salvage recovery" project ended Wednesday. The team is now starting its analysis at a lab on the island. Once that's complete, they'll return to Anchorage to write a report on their findings.

The items will be curated at the Museum of the Aleutians. Cultural Resource Consultants also is working with the Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska and the Ounalashka Corp.

• Korry Keeker can be reached at 523-2268 or korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.

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