Puzzling rocks trump quarry

By Alex, DeMarban
(The Artice Sounder) 7-08

A Northwest Alaska village with a rich archaeological history stopped a quarry project that would have brought much-needed jobs and money.

The reason? Mysterious rock arrangements some call the remains of an ancient culture.

NANA, a Native regional corporation, wanted to create the quarry on a hillside near Deering. The corporation owns the subsurface rights and wanted the rock partly for seawall projects around that village and Kivalina, said Abraham Snyder, director of lands.

But a show of hands at a community meeting in Deering on June 10, overwhelmingly opposed the project. NANA will comply with the community’s wishes and get the rock elsewhere, said Snyder.

The corporation had proposed extracting the rock halfway up the 700-foot hill that residents call Kugruk Mountain. The work wouldn’t have affected the rock arrangements atop the hill, he said. 


The rocks were the key reason people in the village of 150 voted against the project, residents said. Many said the hill may be culturally important and needs studying by an archaeologist.

No one is sure who did it, but someone spent a lot of time and trouble hauling dozens of rocks up the hill three miles east of Deering and arranging them in geometric patterns, said Gilbert Barr, a construction manager for the tribal council.

“There is something up there,” he said. “We don’t know what they are. We just know that someone carried rocks up there that aren’t normal to the lay of the land.”

Several rock cairns ring the windswept hilltop. One stack of rocks appears to have been a food storage area.

Near the top on a southwest flank, several large rocks form a circle on the ground.

Inside the circle are smaller rocks that appear to have once formed a crosshairs-like pattern, Barr said.

In a photo provided by Barr, the arrangement looks sort of like a broken peace sign.

Lighter-colored rocks came from the banks of the Kugruk River that runs past the base of the hill, he said. Other, darker rocks may have come from near the quarry site.

Few people visit the hilltop – there’s no water up there and no wildlife to hunt, Barr said. No one in the village has any memory of who created the formations, he said.

Some of the stuff isn’t ancient. A rusty angle iron pounded into the ground – could be part of an old bed frame – juts from a jumble of rocks in the center of the hilltop.

The U.S. Geological Survey left three brass survey markers dated 1943.

It’s possible the rocks have no cultural value but it’d be nice to know for sure, he said. “That’s why we’re asking for this to be looked at,” he said.

Barr, a former mayor in the Inupiat village of 150, is an archaeology buff and leading opponent of the quarry.

About 10 years ago, the village lost jobs when he led an effort to delay a key water and sewer project to allow an archaeological excavation. The dig yielded a 1,200-year-old grave, an unusual ivory mask and hundreds of other artifacts.

Residents in Deering are especially sensitive to their cultural heritage, said Glenn Sheehan, head of the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium.

To the untrained eye, some of the photos show nothing more than a pile of rocks, perhaps recently arranged in an effort to stop the quarry.

But Sheehan said the photos suggest the arrangements aren’t new. In some of them, the rusty lichen that’s grown on the rocks faces the same direction – the wind-protected side. If they had been moved their recently, the lichen would face different directions.

“It was done a very long time ago,” Sheehan said.

Ruth Barr, Gilbert’s sister-in-law and the tribal government’s administrator, said she’s sorry to lose the quarry project. The pit would have provided jobs and royalty payments to the village.

She believes the area has cultural value, but the village and NANA could have worked out a deal to have the area studied and important discoveries protected, she told residents at the meeting in the tribal hall.

“Everyone complains we have no work,” she said. “I said this money could have helped us in the long run.”