Archaeological efforts continue in Kenai

By Joseph Robertia
Kenai, Alaska (AP) 8-08

Archaeological efforts are continuing at an old Dena’ina site on the east side of Kalifornsky Beach Road, roughly half a mile south of Bridge Access Road, and this time it’s young diggers doing the excavating.

The Kenaitze Tribe and Susten 2008 Campers -- in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaska State Office of History and Archaeology and Alaska State Department of Transportation -- have been conducting an archaeological excavation of the area.

“The kids are finding a lot and learning a lot,” said Sasha Lindgren, the Kenaitze tribe’s cultural director, in regard to the 13 campers -- ages 12 to 17 year olds -- taking part in the dig.

The sites are believed to have belonged to the Alaska Native people known as the Dena’ina, a lineage of Athabascan Indians also are the ancestors of the modern Kenaitze. State archeologists set out earlier this year to identify these sites in the state-owned right of way, and during July removed and preserved many culturally valuable materials that otherwise could have been destroyed by the ongoing road construction in the area.

Archaeologists discovered the remnants of a 10-by-20-foot house pit where as many as a dozen Dena’ina people may have lived, several cold storage cache pits where fish was stored through winter, and the remnants of a few fire pits where food was cooked and where tools were made while the inhabitants attempted to stay warm. It is these sites that the young campers are further excavating.

“The site is important to the tribe and its Susten Camp, as it gives us a glimpse into the lives of our Dena’ina ancestors whose name for the peninsula was ‘Yaghanen’ or ‘the good land,”’ Lindgren said.

Lindgren said the campers are learning by doing, too.

“They’re doing what an archaeologist would do. They’re recording soil conditions, setting up grid lines, doing the digging work, recording their findings by mapping them and marking them on the grid, and they’re preserving their findings for later study,” she said. 


Last month, archaeologists uncovered many artifacts and bones, including two types of European beads, a number of beaver bones, some bird bones from what was probably a grouse, salmon bones and some smaller fish bones, two distinctly different projectile points for hunting animals, bits of iron, shards of Russian ceramics and some window glass and bottle glass from rum or other spirits.

Lindgren said the campers have added to this already impressive list of culturally significant items.

“They’ve found some really neat things. They found a copper ring, more beads, some sea shells and some porcupine jaw bones,” she said.

While the digging is an essential part, it is what is learned from the artifacts found that is even more important, and Lindgren said this message has not been lost on the campers.

“Only a quarter of archaeology is finding artifacts. The rest is recording, preserving and studying the artifacts to try and build a body of knowledge for how people lived. It’s not just finding things to put in a box,” she said.

For the analysis phase of the archaeological project, the campers have been led by Dana Verrengia, the tribe’s archivist, who also has a degree in anthropology from the University of Alaska Anchorage.

“We’ve been sifting through soil samples with a lot of bone fragments, picking out the small bone bits. It’s a lot of fish vertebrae, possible from hooligan. We can calculate from the number of bones, which animals were the most important in their diet,” she said.

Verrengia also is having the campers create black and white drawings of the artifacts found to go along with photos taken.

“In photos, you can lose tiny details. For example, the harpoon tip we found had cracks and small bits broken off that you could see, but that weren’t apparent in photos. So, drawings helps record those things better,” she said.

Verrengia said when the project is complete, the campers will have learned a lot about the past, that may be applied to their future.

“The goal was to teach them about the past and how it applies to their culture and history and teach them that there are job opportunities out there studying that culture and history,” she said.