Seward Line Oceanography: Summer on the Tiglax Series

Compiled from online sources by: Debra Corbett | Nanutset Heritage

The first scientific expedition of the year for the USFWS M/V Tiglax supports the Seward Line Oceanography project, a long-term observation program begun in 1998-2004 by GLOBEC.  The project continued from 2005-2009 by the North Pacific Research Board (NPRB), and is now funded by NPRB, Alaska Ocean Observation System and Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, and managed through UAF’s Institute of Marine Science.  Cruises are conducted twice a year in spring (May) and late summer (early September).

The Gulf of Alaska (GOA) supports a diverse ecosystem that includes several commercially important fishes, as well as culturally and economically important mammals and plants.  Historic observations suggest a connection between the GOA ecosystems and climate variations that range from interannual to interdecadal; the specific mechanisms by which climate variation causes ecosystem changes, however, are poorly understood.  Sampling along the Seward line, from Resurrection Bay south to the outer continental shelf, is producing a multi-year data set that will lead to a better understanding of the seasonal cycle and the variability that occurs from year to year in environmental conditions and biological productivity in the Gulf of Alaska.

Seward Line

During seasonal sampling projects, data about the Seward line are collected about a variety of environmental and biological conditions from salinity and temperature to plankton. The physical environment is assessed using electronic device that measures Conductivity, Temperature and Depth (CTD) at high resolution in real-time. Additional sensors measure water clarity, plant pigment in the water, light is available for plant growth, and/or how much oxygen is dissolved in the water (DO).  The biological environment is sampled by capturing zooplankton for analysis.  Krill and other larger and faster zooplankton are captured at night using a sophisticated “Multinet” system which allows separation of the upper 100m of the ocean into 5 layers, each 20m thick.

The Seward Line is the most detailed multi-disciplinary long-term oceanographic sampling program in the northern Gulf of Alaska. The Seward Line work coordinates with other projects that focus on Cook Inlet and Kachemak Bay, the Alaska Coastal Current, Prince William Sound, and still more broadly across the Gulf of Alaska. The Seward Line monitoring shows that the GOA shelf undergoes alternating periods of warm and cold springs, each of which lasts for multiple years.

For more information about the Seward Line Oceanography project and results visit:



M/V Tiglax Sails for Science

Authors: Lisa Spitler and Jeff Williams | Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge

Tiglax SketchThe M/V Tiglax (TEKH-lah – Aleut for eagle) is essential to managing the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. The boat is 120 feet long and operates with a crew of 6. Fourteen scientists can live and work aboard. She has wet and dry labs and freezers for storing samples. Tiglax can deploy midwater and bottom trawls for sampling fish and plankton, and hosts bioacoustic transducers and data processors for sampling fish/plankton densities; and a SBE-21 thermosalinograph for diving seabird studies.

In a season, the Tiglax may sail to Forrester and St. Lazaria Islands in Southeast Alaska, or into Bering Sea as far as St. Matthew Island. Her main operations area is, however, the Aleutian Chain. Tiglax typically spends 120-160 days at sea covering as many as 20,000 nautical miles (at a top speed of 10 knots) traveling from the home port of Homer, Alaska out to Attu Island at the extreme west end of the Aleutian chain and back, several times a season.

The main role of the Tiglax is to transport service personnel, equipment, and supplies between work sites throughout the refuge. This year Tiglax departs Homer on May 17 to deploy FWS biologists and biological technicians at field camps in the Semidi Islands, on Aiktak, Buldir, Kiska, and Attu. These scientists focus on studying seabird colonies, but also work on reestablishing endangered habitats, they identify and monitor archaeological and historic sites, they monitor bird populations and human impacts on habitats, they maintain remote field facilities, and they patrol refuge waters.

 Tiglax also serves as a seagoing research platform and living quarters for scientists from the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) or other federal or state agencies and universities. This year’s FWS projects include removal of invasive foxes from islands to restore native bird populations, collecting background information on contaminants left over from World War II, and monitoring other contaminant cleanup efforts on Attu and Amchitka, studying Kasatochi Island as she recovers from an eruption in 2008, lichen research on Adak, and visiting remote bird nesting colonies.

Non FWS partners include the National Marine Fisheries Service for sea lion studies, the University of Alaska, Institute of Marine Sciences and School of Fisheries, The Alaska Volcano Observatory, and the US Navy.

Stay with us for the “Summer of the Tiglax” as we report in on monitoring and research activities supported and facilitated by the Tiglax and crew!


Aleutian Islands Social Sciences White Paper on Aleutian Research

Aleutian Islands Social Sciences White Paper on Aleutian Research


The Aleutian Islands Working Group (AIWG) took form in 2013 after a National Science Foundation (NSF) funded workshop in Seattle, WA. in the fall of 2012. That workshop, “Comparative Ecodynamics in the Aleutian and Kuril Islands”, brought together a wide range of scholars working on cultural and ecological questions in the Aleutian and Kuril Islands.  The organizers and participants in this workshop outlined a general Big Science wish list for continued research in these two island groups.  Tentative plans were made for developing a “white paper” to submit to the National Science Foundation to guide NSF in making priority funding decisions for research projects.

What is a white paper? Essentially it is a persuasive essay that uses facts and logic to promote a certain viewpoint.  The contents are intended to provide information for people, in our case a funding entity, seeking to understand issues, or make decisions.

One of the first goals set by the AIWG at our first meeting in January 2013, was to develop a White Paper for Aleutian research to ensure our regional priorities were communicated to funding agencies. The goal of the white paper is not to mandate research foci, but to identify topics of broad general interest to the people living and working in the region. A wide cross section of people weighed in on the discussion.  The effort to draft an Aleutian white paper limped along for a couple of years but recently took on some urgency.

NSF’s Arctic Social Sciences Program (ASSP) recently announced an initiative, Arctic Horizons, to “bring together members of the Arctic social science research and indigenous communities to reassess the goals, potentials, and needs of these diverse communities and Arctic Social Sciences Program (ASSP) within the context of a rapidly changing circumpolar North.” Arctic Horizons is holding six workshops nationwide to solicit advice and opinions.  For more information check the web page at

To make sure our Aleutian voices were heard, AIWG solicited comments and suggestions, drafted and redrafted the text, and finally submitted the Aleutian Islands Social Sciences White Paper to Dr. Anna Kertulla de Echave, Program Director for Arctic Social Sciences at NSF, on February 27. We are now posting it here, and it is on the Arctic Horizons blog at  Thank you to everyone who weighed in at our meetings or through e-mail!

Aleutian Islands Social Science Research White Paper


Written in February 2016 by Debra Corbett, Diane Hanson, and Douglas Veltre

for the

Aleutian Islands Working Group (AIWG), an informal gathering of people who love the people and environment of the Aleutian Islands.


The Aleutian Islands, a unique habitat for human beings, comprise a curving, subarctic archipelago linked to a continental landmass at their eastern end. The islands straddle one of the richest marine ecosystems in the world although many resources (e.g. migrating mammals and birds, plants) are seasonal. Prehistoric humans developed the most comprehensive maritime adaptation on the planet– as profoundly specialized as Pleistocene big game hunters, the bison dependent cultures of the Great Plains, or high altitude herding people.

As a long narrow archipelago between two oceans and two continents, the islands are a complex mosaic of physical and biological micro-environments that required constant human adaptation. Environmental variability resulted in cultural variability, including economic, technical, and craft specializations, and social, political, and religious complexity manifesting differences over 1100 miles.  The Aleutian Islands directly link to the mainland of Alaska through a relatively narrow point at the eastern end; this geographic constraint resulted in limited mainland influences and subsequent filtering their adoption from the east to the most remote western islands.

Beginning in the 1980s, a surge of research greatly expanded our understanding of Aleutian precontact history and culture. These projects include NSF funded archaeology by: 1)  Veltre, Black, McCartney, and Aigner, at a historic site in Reese Bay on Unalaska; 2) Corbett, Lefevre, and West, in the western Aleutian Islands; 3) West, Lefevre, Hatfield, and Wilmerding on Adak Island; 4) Funk on Rat and Kiska Islands; 5) Hanson, on Adak Island; 6) West, Hatfield, Nicolaysen, and MacInnes in the Islands of Four Mountains; 7) Johnson in the Shumagin Islands; and 8) Hoffman on Unimak Island. Berge has received three grants for linguistics research.  Coltrain, O’Rourke and Crawford have received seven grants for paleoanthropological studies, and Reedy-Maschner received funding for studying the sociology of modern fishing communities.  Regional surveys conducted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the 1980s for land claims resulted in extensive data on the distribution and nature of archaeological sites throughout the archipelago.  Other important work was funded by the Museum of the Aleutians in Unalaska Bay (Knecht), and mitigating construction projects in Unalaska Bay and Akun/Akutan Islands (Yarborough, Knecht).  These projects all trained young researchers and Aleut community members as archaeologists, researchers, and teachers.  Many of these young scholars are now beginning their own research careers.

To identify priorities for future research in the Aleutians, we examined 1) seven articles on the history of Aleutian archaeology, 2) notes from two sessions of the AIWG focused on research priorities, and 3) comments from the 2013 Aleutian/Kuril Islands workshop in Seattle.


Culture History

The Aleutian archipelago’s rich history spans nearly 10,000 years. Yet, despite over 130 years of archaeological exploration, the cultural history is still poorly known. Long considered remarkable for 6000 years of cultural continuity and stability, recent research has revealed a rich mosaic of cultural development, interactions, and regional florescence.  Regional chronologies and artifact typologies, fundamental building blocks of archaeological interpretation, are almost completely lacking.  Events and processes leading to the historically complex cultures found at contact in 1741 are virtually unknown in most areas.  Critical work is needed to understand settlement patterning, household archaeology, political and social changes, and population histories.  Funding basic field research is time critical. Rising sea levels, and increased intensity of storms in the North Pacific Ocean, have accelerated the loss of coastal sites to erosion, putting the vast majority of Aleutian Islands archaeological sites at imminent risk of destruction.

Recent work on Unalaska Island and the Alaska Peninsula clearly shows the Aleutian Islands have never been isolated from cultural trends moving across the north. Several projects over the last 20 years have found evidence of interactions with the mainland and two-way transmission of at least technological information (artifacts).  More work needs to be done on relationships and influences among the Aleutian Islands and Kodiak, the Northwest Coast, Bristol Bay and southwest Alaska, as well as with older paleo-Eskimo cultures, and Athabascans.  The question of whether or not the Unangax (Aleuts) were in contact with Asia is far from resolved.  With one access point in the east, and a linear configuration, the Aleutian Islands are a natural laboratory for study of how and why people migrate.


Work focused on existing collections, especially unanalyzed collections of wooden artifacts and textiles from cave excavations and burials, could yield major insights into origins and development of complex Unangax social, political, ideological, and ceremonial patterns.

Environmental research has always been inextricably linked to Aleutian archaeology. Relationships between people and the environment remain of broad, general interest.  Important questions include human subsistence changes over time and across the archipelago, and understanding the long term sustainability of both wildlife and humans.  Linked to this is a desire to document, preserve, and teach traditional Unangax environmental knowledge.  A renaissance of linguistic research and education could be strengthened and enhanced by linking language revitalization to environmental knowledge and historical/archaeological research. Human responses to climate changes over ten thousand years and the resultant effects on economic patterns and human impacts on local environments have been staples of Aleutian archaeological research.  These questions are far from exhaustively treated and the very different Aleut adaptation visible in the eastern Aleutian Islands during the Neoglacial period has raised more questions than answers. Also of interest, is cultural response to catastrophic events such as volcanic eruptions and tsunamis.   Modern climate change threats to archaeological sites makes documenting the prehistoric baseline critical before sites are irretrievably lost.


Continuity of Unangax culture over thousands of years, relative isolation from mainland Alaska, and a single biological population are fundamental to traditional archaeological interpretations of prehistory.  While they have often been presented as overly simplistic generalizations, the themes themselves are valid theoretical questions.  Questions about the origins of the Aleut people and their relationships to other Alaskans, addressed through modern DNA research, have implications for the peopling of the Arctic extending far beyond southwest Alaska.

Continuity, the links between the prehistoric cultures and modern people is a strong theme for modern Aleuts. This meshes with the need for culture-historical archaeology, linguistics, and studies of museum collections. Research being done in these fields should be more closely linked with heritage education and the  culture camps in the region.

Historic Archaeology

The effects of Russian and later American contact on unangax culture cannot be overstated. Although a solid foundation in the archaeology of the Russian period exists through work at Korovinski on Atka Island, and Reese Bay, on Unalaska Island, the field is hardly exhausted.  Research on the earliest period of contact, prior to the chartering of the Russian America Company, is heavily reliant on translations of historic records.  Only targeted archaeological work, hinted at by finds on Rat, Kiska, Carlisle, and Adak Islands, will reveal the varied responses and accommodations made by the Unangax people to this intrusion.

Researchers have barely begun to examine the legacy of American rule in the Aleutian Islands. Early 20th century commercial fox trapping supported a poorly understood or appreciated cultural renaissance with long abandoned islands being reoccupied and economic prosperity promoting regional interactions, education, and political growth.  Aleut culture experienced a tidal wave of cultural shock and change 1) with the outbreak of World War II and the transformation of an isolated region into a modern theater of war and, 2) into the front lines of the Cold War.  With these world events as backdrop, traumatized and diminished communities interned during the war, attempted to resettle their villages and recreate their lives.

Battlefield archaeology and historic research on World War II itself are also virtually untouched research fields with immense potential.


Aleutian archaeology, in a beautiful but challenging environment, is expensive. At a very fundamental level, increasing logistical collaboration among all researchers would dramatically reduce the costs associated with multiple individual projects. For example, archaeologists, biologists, geologists, and others with contemporaneous projects should share logistics costs and resources. Furthermore, coordination with government entities (e.g. USFWS, AVO) working in the region could also reduce costs.

To maximize the potential of new research, a systematic attempt should be made to collate information on known data gaps, including several large, rich and unanalyzed or incompletely analyzed collections. Key to this is increasing access to existing collections and encouraging their use and re-analysis. Funding and permitting processes need to establish firm guidelines for reporting results and making data sets available to other researchers, the Unangax people, and the public.  Making data and results widely available will increase wider participation and collaboration with local people, researchers, educators, and others. One example of an effort to collate data is a bibliography project by AIWG in cooperation with the Aleutian Islands/Bering Sea Islands Landscape Conservation Cooperative.

The richness of Aleutian sites means that even small excavations often result in a huge quantity of material to be analyzed. Archaeologists should systematically sample all data sets, including vertebrate and invertebrate faunas and soil chemistry.  The development of consistent and standard methods for collecting and analyzing adequate samples should be encouraged and expanded.  Sampling methods should be clearly defined by all researchers in proposals and reports.  Traditional and emerging technologies should be fully integrated into research proposals.  These include GIS, remote sensing, soil chemistry, isotope and DNA analyses among others.

Finally, new excavations should focus on house and household archaeology, larger excavation units, and attention to under-reported site types, such as non-midden settlements, isolated features, ephemeral artifact scatters, and caves.

Selected references

Bank, Theodore P. and Richard Williams

1975    Urgently Needed Research on Aleut Culture.  Research Bulletin 1 Vienna, Austria: International Committee on Urgent Anthropological and Ethnological Research. 1975


Veltre, Douglas

2012    One Hundred Forty Years of Archaeology in the Central Aleutian Islands, Alaska. In The People Before: The Geology, Paleoecology and Archaeology of Adak Island, Alaska. D. West, Virginia Hatfield, Elizabeth Wilmerding, Christine Lefevre, and Lyn Gualtieri, ed. Pp. 35-45. British Archaeological Reports International Series. Oxford: Archaeopress

Spaulding, Albert C.

1953    The Current Status of Aleutian Archaeology. Memoirs of the Society for American Archaeology 9:29-31.


The Jochelson Collection: An Adventure to Moscow to study artifacts from the Aleutian Islands of Alaska

Author: Virginia Hatfield, PhD


Jochelson image

Figure 1. Vladimir Jochelson from American Museum of Natural History, December 2015, http:// 70point8percent.

In September of 2015, I journeyed to Moscow, Russia to examine Aleutian artifacts collected by Vladimir Jochelson (Figure 1). Jochelson visited the Aleutian archipelago during the Riaboushinsky Expedition of the Imperial Russian Geographic Society, to Kamchatka and the Aleutian Islands that he led from 1909-1911. The sites excavated during this expedition span the Aleutians and included three sites on Attu, two sites on Atka, four sites on Umnak, three sites on Amaknak, and one site on Hog Island, as well as sites in Kamchatka not discussed herein. These findings from this expedition have been published as Archeological Investigations in the Aleutian Islands (1925) through the Carnegie Institution and republished under the same name by Maschner and Reedy-Maschner (2002). The artifacts are currently curated at the State Historical Museum located on Red Square (Figure 2). My review of artifacts was an attempt to inventory the items in the collection and provide photos and measurements of the stone and bone artifacts that comprise the collection (Figure 3). Unfortunately, permission to photograph the artifacts was contingent on not publishing the images without consent and a fee; thus, none of my photos are presented here. I also was not able to document 100% of the collection due to time constraints.

State Historical Museum Moscow

Figure 2. State Historical Museum, Moscow, Russia (from info/museums/state-historical-museum.aspx)


Figure 3. A sketch of a biface from the Jochelson collection.

Colleagues Olga Krylovich and Arkady Savinetsky (Figure 4) of the Laboratory of Historical Ecology, Institute of Ecology and Evolution at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, took time out of their busy schedules and we were able to measure and describe as much as 70% of this collection—an array of complex multi-component tools used to hunt birds and sea mammals and for fishing. These include chipped stone hafted projectiles, hafted knives; groundstone ulus; and bone harpoons, spears, and darts, as well as bone and ivory ornamental items.

Documentation of this collection will contribute to our understanding of both chipped stone and bone/ivory technology used in the Aleutians. The artifacts from Attu in the western Aleutians, Atka in the central Aleutians, and Umnak, Amaknak, Hog Island in the eastern Aleutians span the Aleutians. Although images and descriptions were published by Jochelson and provide invaluable ethnographic-based functional interpretations, introducing metric measurements and technofunctional analysis (how these items were made and used) will allow this assemblage to be incorporated into the research conducted by Dixie West, Kirsten Nicolaysen, Breanyn MacInnes and myself in the Islands of the Four Mountains as well as current research by other members of the Aleutian Islands Working Group.

I greatly appreciate the assistance of Natalya Shishlina and Irina Sumina of the State Historical Museum for their warm and gracious assistance. It was a wonderful and invaluable experience allowing me to visit my colleagues at the Lab of Historical Ecology, learn a great deal about Moscow and Russia, as well as add to my understanding of Aleutian material culture.

Fig 4

Figure 4. Arkady Savinetsky (left) and Olga Krylovich (right)


Jochelson, Waldemar 1925 Archaeological Investigations in the Aleutian Islands, Carnegie Institution of Washington publication, 367, Washington D.C.

Maschner, Herbert D.G. and Katherine L. Reedy-Maschner 2002 Archaeological Investigations in the Aleutian Islands. The University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

NSF Sponsored Research in the Aleutian region since 1961

Caroline Funk | University at Buffalo

Funding for work and research in the Aleutian region comes from many federal, state, and private sources. The National Science Foundation (NSF) is one of the larger sources of funding and the searchable online NSF awards database is a good source for information about the diversity of work performed in the region ( Last week I made a quick “Simple Search” on the search term “Aleut*” in award titles and abstracts. This query gave me a list of 314 active and expired awards from 18 separate NSF organizations since 1961 – totaling $256,082,759. Probably my quick search did not capture all funding awards related to research in the region, but it does provide a snapshot of the kinds research funded over the past three or four generations of scholars.

The greatest funding dollar amount has come from the Division of Ocean Sciences (~ $182 million). The greatest number of awards is from the Division of Earth Sciences (139).

NSF divisions table

The list of NSF programs – rather than the large-scale NSF organization – that awarded lead funding on the projects provides better insight into the subject of the awards. More than half of the total funding amount for the region was expended on one large project – ARRV – CONSTRUCTION. The Petrology and Geochemistry and Arctic Social Sciences programs have funded the greatest number of projects, with 44 Petrology projects totaling ~$5.3 million and 34 Social Science projects totaling ~$6.5 million. Our research note posts have highlighted more of these kinds of research projects because there are more of them to highlight.

NSF programs table

Universities and other institutions in Alaska have received the largest number of awards.

NSF states

The spreadsheet link below includes the results of my search. The results are sorted from oldest to newest awards.  The last field in the spreadsheet has the abstract of each award, providing details about the intended activities and outcomes.

Dec 9 NSF Aleutian Award Search Results


“Water, Water, Everywhere; Nor Any Drop to Drink” *

Authors: Dixie West, Virginia Hatfield, and Kale Bruner | University of Kansas

During 2014 we conducted our first year of fieldwork in the Islands of the Four Mountains (IFM), Aleutian Islands, Alaska. Our NSF funded, interdisciplinary research incorporates threads of geological, paleobiological, and archaeological analyses in Japanese, Russian, Canadian and U.S. laboratories. We are discovering and sharing these data to paint a clearer picture of the prehistoric, geological, and biological worlds of the Four Mountains.  Lead archaeologists for the campaign are Dixie West, Virginia Hatfield and Kale Bruner.

Six volcanic islands, Yunaska, Kagamil, Uliaga, Herbert, Carlisle, and Chuginadak  (Tana + Cleveland), comprise the Islands of the Four Mountains. Monitored by the Alaska Volcano Observatory, Cleveland is one of the more active Alaska volcanoes, last erupting in November 2014. The IFM are the second island group west from the Alaska Peninsula. Prehistoric Unangax faced their first dangerous Bering Sea voyage when they paddled the 40km wide Samalga Pass to cross from the Fox Islands to the Four Mountains. Currently, we do not know when this initial migration occurred. Anangula in the western Fox Islands was settled around 8500 years ago, and north Adak Island (Andreanof Islands) was settled 7000 years BP: presumably the Samalga voyage occurred quite soon after the earliest Fox Islands occupation.

Anthropologists Lydia Black (2003: 36) pretty much hit the nail on the head when she described our study area: “The Four Mountains Islands proper are…not desirable as human habitat: they are the tops of huge submarine volcanoes. Their coastlines are rugged, steep crags; there are no good landing places and even today any approach to their shores is considered extremely dangerous. There are no tide flats or easily approached off-shore reefs where mollusks can be gathered. The freshwater streams, fed by snows from the peaks, cascade to the sea over many waterfalls. There are no lakes.” For the most part, the volcanoes of the Four Mountains would have been tough places to make a living, possessing topographies unlike many islands located to the east or west.

Typical Four Mountains shoreline (Photo courtesy Anne Fulton).

Typical Four Mountains shoreline (Photo courtesy Anne Fulton).

Working in the Four Mountains during July and August, we inspected and excavated two high elevation village sites that lacked running water. Consequently, we transported fresh water from the ship to the camps while conducting archaeological work. Previously, in the western Aleutians we had simply set up our camps at prehistoric village sites with nearby streams from which we collected our water. This is simply not possible for some, if not many, prehistoric village sites in the Four Mountains. Village site CG-02 sits atop a cliff on north Chuginadak. Prehistoric humans probably settled this site because it: (1) contained suitably soft matrix in which to dig semi-subterranean houses and, (2) provided a lookout for sea mammals and potentially hostile human groups. An erosion gully, cutting through the village and dropping off a steep cliff, would have periodically provided fresh water during late summer storms (Fig. 2), but this runoff could not last long. Did Unangax capture rain as it fell during periodic deluges?  Gut bags could hold water, but would this be enough to sustain a population?

CG-02 erosion gully draining following a strong summer storm (Photo courtesy Mitsuru Okuno).

CG-02 erosion gully draining following a strong summer storm (Photo courtesy Mitsuru Okuno).

Village site CR-02 on Carlisle Island has a similar, deep erosion gully, but in July/August 2014 this drainage was largely dry, with only pockets of water.  At CG-02 and CR-02, among the house pits, we found curious, artificial depressions filled with water. Are these house pits? Borrow pits? Or are these water reservoirs excavated by the Unangax to capture rainwater after winter snows had melted and creeks ran dry? The only literary source for a possible Unangan water reservoir comes from Hrdlicka (1945:236) on Kiska Island: “…within the site, is a large artificial depression which only can have been, it seems, a reservoir for water.”

A water filled pit at CG-02 (Photo courtesy Anne Fulton).

A water filled pit at CG-02 (Photo courtesy Anne Fulton).

Fresh water requirements potentially necessitated seasonal movements to lower lying IFM locations where streams ran year round. We have previously used a variety of methods to determine seasonality of sites: (1) winter/summer bands on clams (but the Four Mountains lack these shellfish for the most part), (2) medullary cavities of bird bones (these cavities vary based on whether a bird is nesting) and, (3) bones of immature animals. Such studies can reveal what time of year high elevation sites were occupied. At the Russian Academy of Sciences, Bulat Khasanov’s recent discovery of charred crowberries in a CG-02 midden seems to suggest this high elevation village was occupied during summer when berries are ripe, but when potable water was least available. (Or perhaps the berries were stored and used during winter at the village?)

During 2015 we will core several of these artificial ponds. Recovery of cultural artifacts (stone tool fragments, bones, hearth debris) would indicate that these enigmatic depressions are house pits that have somehow filled with water over time. Hitting lava (and not cultural debris) could suggest either: (1) an artificial water reservoir or (2) an unfinished house pit abandoned when impenetrable matrix was encountered. These abandoned pits could fill with water over time. We will take specific note of these water filled pits to see if there is a pattern to their locations. If these are water reservoirs, productive hydrological systems can be added to the repertoire of prehistoric Unangax accomplishments.

* Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”


Black, Lydia. 2003. Aleut Art. Donning Company Publishers and Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, Inc

Hrdlička, A. 1945. The Aleutian and Commander Islands and Their Inhabitants. The Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology, Philadelphia.

Aleut Sulfur Mining on Little Sitkin Island.

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.

LittleSitkinLast 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 extent of the sulfur deposit.

The extent of the sulfur deposit.

Smoking sulfur (Photo by B. Hoffman).

Smoking sulfur (Photo by B. Hoffman).

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.

RAT-162 site map.

RAT-162 site map.

RAT-162 looking down slope to the North (Photo by C. Funk).

RAT-162 looking down slope to the North (Photo by C. Funk).

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.

Potential mining feature areas.

Potential mining feature areas.

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.

RAT-162 Other Features

Rectangular feature, circular feature, and chalcedony outcrop.

RAT-162 Square house

Potential Russian era feature cluster (Photo by B. Hoffman).

Circular feature (Photo by B. Hoffman).

Circular feature (Photo by B. Hoffman).

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.