Authors: Caroline Funk | University at Buffalo, Debra Corbett | Nanutset Heritage, and Brian Hoffman | Hamline University – The Rat Islands Research Project
An email string discussing Aleut use of sulfur* recently was passed among the community of Northern researchers. A number of people provided insight and ethnohistoric citations describing Aleut use of sulfur in past times: Aleuts used sulfur as a fire starter, as a dye, as pigment and paint. We can speculate that like other places in the world, Aleuts used sulfur as an insecticide or a fungicide and as a topical medicine. Sulfur is used to make black gunpowder, which may have been important to the more recent Russian occupants of the Aleutians. Elemental sulfur is rare and expensive to obtain, unless one happens to be near a sulfur deposit-bearing volcano.
Last June the Rat Islands Research Project crew mapped and tested what we suspect was a sulfur mining operation on Little Sitkin Island in the Rat Islands (RAT-162). The archaeological site seemed different from a typical prehistoric Aleut village site – although, as you might expect, the site is located on a resource rich small bay with a reef. The air was a little bit dense on the site, because a smoking sulfur deposit rimmed the bluff a few meters below the ground surface.
The twenty-two depression features which usually mark collapsed dwellings were remarkably diverse in shape and size. Some are clustered in a main site area, where we noted a series of linear trenches extending perpendicular to the bluff edge between several of the depressions. We suspect that the linear features were sulfur mining trenches. This area of the site was constructed by prehistoric Aleuts – our small test excavation was in this area and we found prehistoric tools. A charcoal sample from the test excavation is in the radiocarbon lab and soon we’ll have a date of occupation for this portion of the site.
Several other depression features, each measuring one to two meters in diameter, are spaced at regular intervals upslope from the main site (in the images, south is to the upper right and south is upslope). Most of these depressions were right on the bluff edge, often partially eroded. We recovered a chalcedony scraper from the eroded edge of one depression. This scraper gives us strong evidence that this portion of the site resulted from precontact Aleut mining as well. A set of small pits, each less than a meter in diameter, is clustered just upslope from the main site area and behind the bluff edge features – these also likely were sulfur mining pits.
Near the top of the slope we mapped two interesting feature areas. A rectangular depression is surrounded by five smaller rectangular depressions – we suspect this may be the remains of a Russian era structure. A tamped earth circle about 15 meters in diameter is just upslope from the rectangular structure. We are unsure what this is. Beyond the circle feature are exposed bedrock outcrops that contain chalcedony.
We visited this site on our final afternoon in the field and we had just two hours to map and test it. Two days after we left the Rat Islands, an Mw 7.9 earthquake struck the area, the epicenter just 39 kilometers southeast of Little Sitkin Island – potentially damaging this site and others in the region. As our work in the Rat Islands continues, we’ll revisit this site to learn more about the history of Aleut sulfur mining. For more information our research project, visit our Rat Islands Research Project website.
* “Sulfur” is the conventional spelling in the United States and in Chemistry (Citation: Oxford English Dictionary, Sixth Edition).
Header image: Khvostof, Davidof, and LIttle Sitkin from Segula Island. Photo by C. Funk.