Archaeologists are often asked, “How do you know where to dig.” It’s a good question. Sometimes traces of the past can be hard to find. In other, there are abundant signs of human activity. Certain plants can suggest the presence of buried sites. Erosion can expose artifact and ancient garbage. Depressions can hint at underlying houses. Alutiiq Museum archaeologist Patrick Saltonstall lucked out this past summer, finding ample evidence of the past along the Alaska Peninsula’s King Salmon River during a project funded by the Alaska Region Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“We were working at the Penguq site,” said Saltonstall. “It’s a huge river-side settlement occupied between 1,000 and 2,000 years ago. The site rests on a piece of high ground surrounded by swamp. It’s one of the few good places to set up camp in the area, and man did people set up camp here!”
How does Saltonstall know? From the air, the site looks a bit like it’s been bombed. Large depressions cover the surface of an area that could easily encompass several football fields. Measuring up to 12 meters across, these depressions represent the remains of sod houses, and there are more than 90 of them. Others are buried beneath those visible on the surface.
To learn more about the occupation, Saltonstall and a crew of museum archaeologists excavated portions of the site’s houses. With so many depressions to choose from they selected structures that looked different. Some appeared to have side rooms, some appeared to have a sod roof, some were smaller.
According to Saltonstall, “with so many, deep, heavily insulated houses, we thought the Penguq site was likely a winter settlement. People invested a lot of effort in building these structures, so they probably spent a lot of time here. In such settlements you would expect to find a variety of different structure, representing different activities.“
He was right. Although their museum’s study of site finds is still underway, preliminary results indicate that in addition to houses, residents constructed buildings for smoking foods, storing foods, and sweat bathing. The Regional Archeology office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs will publish a study report next year.
Photo: Mary Pearce in an ancient sod house on the King Salmon River