Sealaska receives ancient stone artifacts

Juneau man donates objects unearthed in Auke Bay in 1930s

Posted: Thursday, December 27, 2007

Sealaska Heritage Institute got an early and important Christmas present this year when a Juneau man donated four ancient stone objects unearthed in Auke Bay back in the 1930s.

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Ronald Haffner gave a maul, bowl, grinder and a carved stone seal head to the institute earlier this month and Rosita Worl, institute president and anthropologist, said the items would eventually be displayed at Sealaska Plaza after further study.

"I'm glad we can finally put them out there and give them back to the Native community so everyone can see and enjoy them and learn about them," Haffner said.

Haffner's grandmother is believed to have dug up the stone objects at the site of the first commercial farm in Juneau. The cultural treasures were passed down through the family. Haffner made the donation to honor his mother, Edith Trambitas, who cherished the items for 50 years before giving them to her son. Trambitas died in November.

The items are considered to be the most significant addition to the institute's collection in recent years. They join 300 artifacts, 20,000 photographs and 750 linear feet of manuscript material housed at the regional Native Corporation.

The stonework comes from the ancestral homeland of the Tlingit Aak'wKwaan and the artistic quality suggests a more wealthy culture than previously thought. Worl said they were made before Russian or Spanish explorers reached Alaska. It's unknown why they work was buried.

"It speaks to a richness that's not normally associated with the region," Worl said. "These are objects made by the grandparents of the Aak'wKwaan."

The age of the artifacts is not known. Worl said without more information about the location and depth and surrounding sediment, archaeologists could not set a burial date. She said there is some hope of future digs at the site, which is still in private hands.

Three of the stone-carved objects are clearly utilitarian, used to grind and hammer, but it's the seal head that says the most about the culture to Worl.

"It reflects on the artistic achievement of the Tlingit people prior to the arrival of Europeans," Worl said.

She said the intricately carved stone was possibly attached to a staff at one time and the time spent carving it lends to the belief its function was important.

The maul is also significant because of its animal likeness and traces of ancient red paint.

The donation comes with an additional story of a stone mask unearthed along with the bowl and seal head, but sold to a local lawyer back in the days before statehood. The story has the lawyer building the mask into her fireplace mantle. It was later removed.

The mask, if found, would further suggest great wealth in the region.

"We're keenly interested in seeing that mask." Worl said.

• Contact Greg Skinner at 523-2258 or

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