Archive for June, 2012

Richard Wetherill’s Grave

Today is Wetherill Day, the anniversary of Richard Wetherill’s death in 1910, and as such I would like to continue my tradition of marking the occasion by discussing the complicated and often misunderstood legacy of Wetherill, the pioneering amateur archaeologist who excavated many sites in the Southwest, including most famously Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon. I’ve talked about the general story and context in previous posts, so this time I’d like to note one specific example of how, in contrast to his popular image as a simple pot-hunter focused on collecting artifacts, Wetherill made some quite perceptive (though not necessarily correct) deductions about cultural history based on his excavations.

After his early work in the 1880s at Mesa Verde, near his family’s ranch outside the small town of Mancos, Colorado, but before his more famous work at Chaco between 1896 and 1901, Wetherill did some exploring of the cliff dwellings of the Grand Gulch area of southeastern Utah. By this point in his career Wetherill had become quite sincerely interested in archaeology not just as a source of articles to be sold but as a window into the past, and his techniques of both excavation and interpretation had improved markedly, in part due to influence by the Swedish archaeologist Gustaf Nordenskiöld, who had come to Colorado in 1891 and assisted with the Mesa Verde work.

In the winter of 1893–1894, Wetherill organized an expedition to Grand Gulch with the financial backing of the wealthy New York brothers Benjamin and Talbot Hyde. This was the first instantiation of the Hyde Exploring Expedition, which would later become the aegis for Wetherill’s work at Chaco as well. As James Snead notes in an article on the relationship between Wetherill and the Hydes:

The principal archaeological discovery of the season was of remains predating those of the “cliff dwellers,” which Talbot Hyde, exercising a prerogative of sponsorship, named the “Basket Makers.”

And Basketmakers they remain; the term is still in use to designate this culture, which did indeed predate the later groups of “cliff dwellers” who built stone houses and are therefore known as “Pueblos.”

But how did Wetherill and the Hydes know that the Basketmaker remains they found at Grand Gulch predated the cliff dwellers? Through the use of stratigraphy, which is based on the assumption that in undisturbed deposits lower layers are older than higher ones. The Basketmaker deposits were below the cliff dweller ones, therefore they were older. There have been suggestions that Wetherill actually used stratigraphic excavation at this time, which is to say that he used stratigraphic levels as the organizing principle for the excavation itself, but David Browman and Douglas Givens argue in an article on the rise of stratigraphic excavation in American archaeology that there is no evidence he actually did. Instead, he most likely excavated and only afterward looked at the strata in the exposed trenches to make his cultural determinations, a fairly common practice at the time which Browman and Givens call “post facto stratigraphic interpretation” and oppose to the truly stratigraphic excavation that arose in the 1910s.

But Wetherill didn’t just notice that the Basketmaker remains were different from and lower than the cliff dweller ones. He also came up with a tentative theory on the relationship between the two groups. Based on both artifact differences and, as Erik Reed discusses in an article on the early history of physical anthropology in the Southwest, skull shapes, Wetherill concluded that the two groups were “racially” distinct, with the implication that the one was not descended from the other. As Reed notes, this was challenged a bit by other archaeologists at the time, but later discoveries seemed to confirm it, and it became dogma in the early twentieth century until further research in the 1940s showed that the differences in skull form were actually due to artificial cranial deformation in the later skulls probably caused by the introduction of stiff cradleboards. It was further found that there were actually multiple kinds of such deformation, of possible significance in delineating different cultural groups. Reed says:

The very significant distinction between lambdoid and vertical occipital cranial deformation was brought out only in 1937, by T. D. Stewart, followed up by my 1949 paper; but was foreshadowed by Richard Wetherill who stated [...] “that there is a difference in the mode of flattening the head. In the skulls of the mesa dwellers the artificial depression of the posterior part of the cranium has been applied obliquely from above, so that it principally affects the parieto-occipital region; the skulls from the cliff-dwellings have been flattened straight from behind, the occipital region being most affected.”

The distinction between the Basketmakers and cliff-dwellers on stratigraphic grounds was an important discovery, and while it was the sort of thing that many professional archaeologists would likely have noticed at the time, it’s not something a typical pot-hunter would have cared much about. Wetherill, however, not only noticed it but drew some reasonable if ultimately erroneous inferences about population history from it. He also noticed some subtle differences in skull form and attributed them to different types of cranial deformation, which was later found to be quite correct (although note that he doesn’t seem to have considered that this might have been the reason for the differences between Basketmaker and later skulls as well). Wetherill was a problematic guy in a lot of ways, as my previous posts have noted, but when it comes to archaeological methodology and inference he was definitely at the forefront of the archaeological thought of his time, if not in fact ahead of it.
Browman, David L., & Givens, Douglas R. (1996). Stratigraphic Excavation: The First “New Archaeology” American Anthropologist, 98 (1), 80-95 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1996.98.1.02a00080

Reed, Erik K. (1963). The Beginnings of Physical Anthropology in the Southwest Journal of the Arizona Academy of Science, 2 (3), 130-132 DOI: 10.2307/27641802

Snead, James E. (1999). Science, Commerce, and Control: Patronage and the Development of Anthropological Archaeology in the Americas American Anthropologist, 101 (2), 256-271 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1999.101.2.256

Read Full Post »

Sign with Summer Solstice Sunrise and Sunset Times, Anchorage, Alaska

Today is the summer solstice, and here in the “land of the midnight sun” the longest day of the year is very long indeed. In Anchorage, we don’t quite get to 24 hours of daylight, but it is nevertheless well after 11:00 pm as I write this and the sun is still up. North of the Arctic Circle they do have periods where the sun doesn’t set at all, for varying lengths of time depending on latitude. The northernmost community is Barrow, which gets several weeks of non-stop daylight in the summer (with a corresponding period of darkness in the winter, of course).

Given that the solstice falls right in the middle of this period of extreme daylight, it might be expected that Arctic peoples would mark it in some way, as many other societies around the world do (including the indigenous cultures of the US Southwest, as extensively documented in prior posts here). And this does indeed appear to be the case, though with a typically Alaskan twist.

Whalebone Arch with Umiak Frames, Barrow, Alaska

The Inupiaq Eskimos of the North Slope of Alaska, which lies entirely above the Arctic Circle, have traditionally had a whaling-based subsistence system, and to a considerable degree still do. They hunt whales in the spring (and in some villages also in the fall) using a type of traditional skin boat known as an umiak. These are large, open boats made of a wooden frame covered with the hides of walruses or seals, made according to a rigorous traditional protocol. They are used in other areas further south along the Bering Sea coast as well, but their close association with whaling is most pronounced on the North Slope. A recent article by Susan Fair discussed them in the context of their architectural uses as temporary shelters in various settings and their cultural importance in both whaling and the demarcation of ceremonial and other culturally important spaces at certain times.

One of those times is the Whale Feast, often known as Nalukataq (although that name technically refers only to the blanket toss that is one of the most famous elements of it). This ceremony is held only in years when at least one whale has been taken, and while its exact date varies it is scheduled for sometime around the summer solstice. As the name “Whale Feast” implies, the main focus of this event is on sharing the meat from harvested whales with the community, and it is an opportunity for the whaling captains (known as umialiit) who own the umiaks to demonstrate their generosity and show off their prowess.

Umiak on Sea Ice, Barrow, Alaska

Fair focuses in her article on the role the umiaks play in both the ceremony and the social system behind it, in which the small number of umialiit in a village form an elite within it and the umiak serves as a symbol of their power and prestige, but I was more interested in the timing of the feast. The spring whaling season at least in Barrow generally ends in late May or early June (it had recently ended when I was up there at the end of May and there were umiaks with flags raised indicating whaling success all over the place), so having the feast in late June makes a certain amount of just practical sense given the preparations necessary, but I do wonder if there is a deeper significance to the association with the solstice, perhaps as a vestige of a large role for indigenous astronomy in the pre-Contact era. I have not been able to find much information on archaeoastronomy or ethnoastronomy in Alaska, but given the high latitude and spectacular celestial phenomena that abound here I’m sure Native people have long been attuned to the sky. Recent changes, especially aggressive Christian missionization that sought to stamp out Native religion, has obscured a lot of the earlier cultural practices, but I wonder if things like the timing of the Whale Feast preserve bits and pieces of aspects of traditional knowledge that are otherwise forgotten. Certainly a topic that could use more attention, I think.

Read Full Post »

USGS Sign, Anchorage, Alaska

One hundred years ago today, one of the biggest volcanic eruptions in recorded history took place in southwestern Alaska. The volcano, known as Novarupta, is located in what is now Katmai National Park, which was established in 1918 as a direct result of the eruption and its effects on the landscape. As a result, this anniversary is a big deal for the National Park Service in Alaska, which has a special issue of its journal Alaska Park Science devoted to the eruption as well as a special webpage of information on volcanoes in the region. The main institution involved in Alaska volcanology, however, is the Alaska Volcano Observatory, a joint program of the US Geological Survey, the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, and the State of Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys. They are spearheading much of the commemoration of Novarupta and have their own website listing events and other information on it.

The eruption of Novarupta began on June 6, 1912 and continued for three days. There are various contemporary reports of the eruption from people who were in the area at the time, including one by I. M. Dailey of the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, who was stationed 150 miles away in Seldovia at the time, which was soon published in the Bulletin of the American Geographical Society and is now available free through JSTOR. Other reports come from the larger town of Kodiak, even closer to the eruption, where a foot of ash fell in the course of sixty hours of darkness. A fuller picture of what had happened at the site of the eruption itself didn’t emerge until a series of expeditions over the next few years sponsored by the National Geographic Society traveled to the vent site and undertook a variety of studies that had an enormous impact on the emerging field of volcanology. In an article in the aforementioned special issue of Alaska Park Science Judy Fierstein, a USGS volcanologist who has done extensive research at Novarupta and other volcanoes at Katmai, summarizes both the early reports and studies and more recent work that has clarified the reconstruction of exactly what happened over those three days in 1912.

Many of the early National Geographic expeditions were led by the botanist Robert Griggs, who would be quite influential in shaping interpretations of Novarupta. He discovered and named Novarupta itself, although Fierstein notes that he actually concluded erroneously that the main vent for the eruption was not there but at Mt. Katmai six miles away, which collapsed dramatically into a huge caldera during the event. Subsequent research has revealed, however, that while most of the magma that erupted was indeed stored in a chamber under Mt. Katmai, it actually erupted through Novarupta. Understanding exactly how this complicated internal “plumbing” system of the two volcanoes worked is one of the continuing challenges in ongoing research on the eruption.

Griggs also discovered and named the famous “Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes” where flows of ash from the eruption filled a large valley downslope from Novarupta. At the time Griggs visited just a few years after the eruption, this valley was filled with steaming fumaroles where the still-hot ash met various water sources, and the astonishing sight prompted the poetic name. Within a few more years, however, most of the fumaroles had stopped steaming, and they’re pretty much all dead now. Still, the name remains, as does the strikingly barren landscape with little vegetation having recovered even a hundred years later. The area is so otherworldly that it was actually used as a training ground in the 1960s for astronauts preparing to go to the moon.

Remarkably, despite the scale of Novarupta, which ejected more than three cubic miles of magma in the form of a cloud of ash thousand miles wide and 100,000 feet high that wind currents eventually carried as far as Algeria, there were no deaths from the eruption. The inhabitants of the three Native villages near the volcano had fled after a series of earthquakes in the days leading up to the eruption indicated that a major catastrophe was likely, and the few other communities in this sparsely populated area were far enough away that the levels of ash fall they received were substantial but not deadly. Even Kodiak, which was the hardest hit community due to both proximity and wind direction, managed to get through the initial period of fear and panic during which the whole population took refuge on a Coast Guard cutter docked in the harbor, and it soon recovered its earlier prosperity. The residents of the three closest villages were unable to return to their homes, of course, and were resettled in other communities elsewhere on the Alaska Peninsula, where their descendants reside to this day. All this is in striking contrast to the death toll of over 36,000 people from the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, which was of a similar magnitude but occurred in a much more densely populated area.

Indeed, the lack of major cultural or long-term environmental effects from Novarupta (outside of the immediate area, of course) initially led one prominent archaeologist, Don Dumond of the University of Oregon, to initially discount the role of volcanic eruptions in general as a force shaping the culture history of the Alaska Peninsula. Dumond conducted long-term excavations primarily in the Brooks River area of Katmai National Park from the 1950s to the 1980s, and his interpretations based on that work have been enormously influential in shaping interpretations of the region’s prehistory. Initially he saw no particular correlation between the numerous volcanic ash layers in his Brooks River sites, which he assumed came from eruptions of the numerous local volcanoes, and the cultural changes visible in the archaeological record. More detailed geophysical work on the ash itself, however, led one volcanologist to suggest that some of the larger ash layers at Brooks had come from various known eruptions at Aniakchak, a very large volcano about 150 miles further south on the Peninsula. If eruptions had deposited ash that far away, they must have been much larger than Novarupta, which would therefore not necessarily be a good guide to their ecological or cultural effects. Dumond therefore decided to look over the record of ash deposits and culture history in other parts of the peninsula to determine if these ash layers really were as widespread as they should be if they came from Aniakchak or another very large volcano.

He published his findings in a 2004 paper, and the results were intriguing but inconclusive. Many other sites on the Peninsula did have ash layers that could potentially be from the same eruptions as the major Brooks River ones, but difficulties in precisely dating these layers and relating them to the dating of the known eruptions at Aniakchak left the issue largely open. While this particular study was largely inconclusive, I find the general idea of trying to determine the relationships between volcanoes and human history very interesting (as longtime readers will recall), so hopefully more research along these lines in this exceptionally volcanically active area will shed more light on the question, which is potentially of great importance in explaining certain cultural and linguistic phenomena.

Regardless of whether volcanic eruptions were major factors in the prehistory of Alaska, it’s clear that they are a major risk factor for us today because of a new development since 1912: the rise of air travel. We need only recall the havoc wreaked by the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 (a vastly smaller eruption than Novarupta) to realize how big an effect a major eruption can have on aircraft, and southwestern Alaska is one of the most heavily traveled air routes in the world for both passengers and freight. Indeed, one of the main reasons the Alaska Volcano Observatory was established was to monitor Alaska’s volcanoes for their risk to air traffic. One study using simulations based on the scale of the Novarupta event found that a similar event today could potentially shut down essentially all air traffic throughout the northern hemisphere (and, in the unlikely event that ash moved into the southern hemisphere as well, even the whole world). And note that this is by no means an extremely unlikely occurrence; eruptions of this scale happen regularly, and while there hasn’t been one since Novarupta, there’s every reason to think another one will happen at some point. The only thing to do is to keep watching the volcanoes and studying their past eruptions to try to glean insights for the future. This hundredth anniversary of one of the most important such eruptions is an excellent opportunity to remember that.
Dailey, I. (1912). Report of the Eruption of Katmai Volcano Bulletin of the American Geographical Society, 44 (9) DOI: 10.2307/200811

Read Full Post »

Welcome Sign, Barrow, Alaska

I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days in Barrow, Alaska, which is a really fascinating place in a whole bunch of ways. It’s certainly unlike any other place I’ve ever seen, either in Alaska or outside it. The coexistence of a vigorous tradition of subsistence whaling with a huge influx of money from the North Slope oil fields, combined with the presence of numerous scientists and other researchers stationed at the former Naval Arctic Research Laboratory (NARL) gives the place a mixture of cultures and perspectives that I’m pretty sure doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. The unpaved streets and rough wooden facades of the buildings in Barrow belie the extremely sophisticated infrastructure supporting them.

The modern community of Barrow descends from the ancient Inupiat village known as Utqiagvik (also known as Ukpiagvik), and a portion of the old village is still visible as ruins within the modern city. There’s not much to see except a series of low mounds representing old houses, but some of the mounds still have bits of  the whale bone supports of the houses protruding, which is interesting. Much of Utqiagvik has been excavated, and an interesting article by Georgeanne Lewis Reynolds published in 1995 explains some of the lessons learned for archaeology more generally from the excavations at this site. Reynold’s approach falls within the “behavioral archaeology” school established by Michael Schiffer at the University of Arizona, which emphasizes the “formation processes” that lead to the archaeological record as it uncovered in excavations. The basic idea behind this is that what we see in a site when it is excavated is usually not a “snapshot” of daily life at a given moment in the past, a la Pompeii; instead, it is usually a sort of palimpsest of a variety of activities in a given location over time, further complicated by natural processes that occurred after the final human use of the site that serve to further obscure human activities. This general area of study is known within archaeology by the term “taphonomy” (itself taken from paleontology), although Reynolds does not use this term in her article.

Welcome Sign at Utqiagvik Site, Barrow, Alaska

As Reynolds points out, these natural processes are particularly important in the Arctic, where freeze-thaw cycles lead to major movements of soil layers and associated artifacts, coastal erosion destroys significant parts of sites like Utqiagvik located on coastal bluffs, and the sudden movement of large blocks of ice onto the bluff top, known in Inupiaq as ivu, can catastrophically destroy anything in the ice’s path. One famous ivu at Utqiagvik appears to have killed the well-known “frozen family” at Mound 44, preserving in place a Pompeii-like scene of domestic life that has provided details of ancient domestic life not generally available, but at the cost of also destroying much other evidence about the house on account of its destructive nature.

As for cultural formation processes, Reynolds identifies abandonment and reuse of structures as the main processes that can be detected at Utqiagvik. Many house mounds were abandoned, with most of the usable artifacts and bulding materials in them either taken away by the inhabitants who left or scavenged later by others, with the result that few conclusions about specific uses of space within the structures can be made. Some of these were later reused, which adds additional complications to interpretation.

Whale Bone House Support Protruding from Mound at Utqiagvik

Ultimately, Reynolds concludes that formation processes are more easily determined at sites like this at the level of architectural units (i.e., houses), rather than at the level of individual artifacts. All the formation processes she describes have a tendency to move artifacts away from their original locations where they were used, meaning that few conclusions about artifact use or social practices can be made from the locations where artifacts were excavated. The overall assemblage of artifacts from a given structure is a more reliable guide to the use of that structure in general, although even here processes such as abandonment and reuse complicates the picture for any given time period.

This may all seem fairly obvious, but it actually constitutes a fairly strong critique of the influential approach to archaeological inference promoted most famously by Lewis Binford, whose “processual” approach (part of the “New Archaeology” he and others spearheaded in the 1960s) depends crucially on the ability of archaeologists to draw wide-ranging conclusions about prehistoric societies based in part on the distribution of artifacts in excavated sites. Schiffer’s focus on the ways the archaeological record was actually formed is an important reality check on this approach, emphasizing that these sorts of conclusions can really only be made when certain specific conditions obtain. Reynolds’s paper serves largely to apply this general approach to the exceptionally complicated situation in the Arctic, where things are not necessarily as they seem.

Mounds at Utqiagvik, Looking toward Downtown Barrow, Alaska

Read Full Post »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 74 other followers