Archaeologists have a way of focusing on the glamorous – temples, tombs, and shipwrecks for example. Kodiak may not have pyramids, but over the past century archaeologists have been drawn to its most alluring sites; large coastal villages filled with midden. We have learned a lot from these sites, but they provide just one picture of the past. You can’t understand a society by studying only its cities or monuments. You need a broader view.
Over the last decade, museum archaeologists have been investigating the history of Womens Bay. This protected finger of water just beyond the City of Kodiak is a microcosm of local history. Sites of all eras and types occupy its shores. Years of research have helped curator Patrick Saltonstall to understand the environment, and to look beyond the noticeable settlements to find the smaller, less obvious places people lived and worked.
“Campsites, fish processing areas, quarries, and even hunting blinds are a part of Kodiak’s archaeological record,” said Saltonstall. “Scientists often talk about these sites, but few people have ever studied one.”
With characteristic aplomb, Saltonstall and his crews of community volunteers have been investigating a string of small sites at the head of the bay. Saltonstall, who spent a lot of time in geology classes, recognized that Womens Bay was once much longer. Today Salonie Creek meanders across a broad meadow at the head of bay, but thousands of years ago this expanse of tangled brush was ocean water, and people settled along its shore.
At the Amak site last August, museum crews excavated in a series of small mounds tucked up against the ancient coast. Here they found a unique and focused set of materials. The site contained long slate lances and sharpening tools, but little else. It also featured the tumbled remains of a rock ring, a roughly circular pile of water-rounded boulders (see photo). Saltonstall had never encountered a similar structure, but he interprets it as a hunting blind. Here, perhaps 5000 years ago, seal hunters scanned the water, took shelter from the wind, and worked on tools.
The Amak site, and others along the Womens Bay coast are painting a new picture of Alutiiq history. Archaeologists have long assumed that Kodiak’s first societies were highly mobile, that they lived in small groups, had portable shelters, and moved frequently. While their sites are small, home to perhaps several families, some contain more permanent structures. Carefully built earthen houses are older than previously recognized and suggest that families invested substantial amounts of labor and resources into creating dwellings. In turn, this suggests that residents intended to stay. Kodiak’s early families may not have moved as frequently as predicted.
The museum has also discovered a greater diversity of sites than expected. Saltonstall explains. “I really thought the Amak site would hold another fish processing area. We almost didn’t work here. The deposit’s locale and size suggested that it would be similar to other sites we’ve studied nearby. However, we took a chance, and found an entirely different type of site. So far, the data suggest that hunters stopped here to watch for seals. We’ll see if this idea holds up. We plan to excavate more next year, and to look for sites on the opposite side of the meadow. I think there is more to be learned from the archaeology of Womens Bay.”