Kotzebue construction workers stumble across archaeological find

Two years ago, workers laying cable in a trench near a beach in Kotzebue encountered something unexpected.

They'd stumbled upon a treasure trove of artifacts buried deep in the ground, including ivory combs, tools and spear points for whaling.

In all, they found more than 4,000 pieces.

"For at least 600 years people have been in there as a major trading location. People used to come over from Siberia and people were coming from upriver down to the Kotzebue Sound," said Dr. Morgan Blanchard, senior project archaeologist for Northern Land Use Research Alaska, LLC. "So, there's just this intense scatter of stuff that people have dropped over hundreds of years."

The initial discovery was made during a GCI project in 2013 to bring 3G service to the area.

At first, crews weren't exactly sure what they'd found, though they could easily tell that many of the items had been handmade by people and were very, very old.

"In Alaska, there's so many things you can encounter with any kind of construction, so, when we're doing any of our projects we're very careful," said Heather Handyside, director of corporate communications for GCI. "We often have to go through long permitting processes to even work on certain areas of land. We're very vigilant about potentially coming across something like this."

They immediately stopped digging, she said, and consulted their agency protocol with the Bureau of Land Management. Then, they brought in specialists, like Blanchard.

"That's when we came in to examine what was going on, pick the best route through the area, and monitor the construction and installation of the underground cable," he said. "What we were trying to do was find a way that would have as little impact as possible on the archaeological material in the area."

Working with local community members to ensure the excavation was done in a culturally appropriate manner, they began the arduous process of removing and cataloguing.

"We do stratigraphic work -- you record everything in a very high level of detail because you want to preserve the context of the artifacts even as you're bringing them out of the ground," Blanchard said.

It's helped them start to get a clearer picture of where some of the items came from and what they were doing in that particular spot.

Being close to the beach, the artifacts had moved a lot as tidal changes shaped and shifted the land over decades. Blanchard found the area had also once been graded in the 1940s for industrial use.

"There were modern things mixed in with older artifacts because the area had been churned," he said.

Though the details haven't been worked out yet, so far the artifacts appear to be consistent with what archaeologists would expect to find in the Northwest Arctic.

"The artifacts are always fascinating. They're so beautiful. That's one of the things you really see when you're dealing with Inupiat stuff. The skill and craftsmanship that goes into that is amazing," Blanchard said. "It's a very lush environment because it's got some very good food sources, but they're high-risk food sources. You're investing a lot into a particular life way. The tools show the type of care you'd put into something if you knew your life depended on it. You'd make the best tool you possibly could to hunt whale or seal because you knew that would feed your family and keep everybody alive. You really see that care and craftsmanship here."

Many questions remain, though, including: Are the artifacts of a type associated with specific groups of people or time periods? How well do they compare to known sites nearby?

Researchers are looking for answers. Funded by GCI as the project leader, many of the artifacts are being sent off for carbon dating -- to find out precisely how old they are. Others are being meticulously photographed and measured and still more will undergo residue analysis.

A prime sampling, however, is returning to Kotzebue this week for a community reception.

"We're really here to listen to people and capture stories, if we can, about how these items resemble items currently being used or find out if anybody remembers their grandparents using these kind of items," Handyside said. "We're just doing anything we can to capture the knowledge that people may still have that can link them to these items of the past."

In addition to the meet-and-greet happening for residents, there will also be a film crew attending to document any interesting stories or findings that happen along the way.

GCI will also be working with local high schoolers on a preservation project involving a few of the most interesting pieces, like the spear tip.

"They're going to look at the artifacts, get their dimensions, and then they're going to use 3-D printers to replicate the items and complete them. So, they'll make the entire spear," Handyside said. "It's ancient technology meeting modern, cutting-edge technology."

They'll also be consulting with elders while in town, she said.

Looking ahead, once the artifacts have been thoroughly dated and documented, some will go on loan into the collections at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Museum of the North.

The animal bone material that was removed will be returned to Kikiktagruk Inupiat Corporation -- the landowner -- for reburial. Working with communities to do research in appropriate ways is one of the best facets of his job, Blanchard said.

"It's a pleasure to do these projects. The whole purpose of my visit is to bring these artifacts back to the community and to get their input on it. I'm not here to tell them about these things," he said. "What I'm interested in finding out is what they can tell me about it. What's the ethnographic part of this? What's the information that the elders have? That's a very important thing. This is their culture and I'm trying to understand it. I can bring information that could help them, but it's very important to get their story, too."

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.