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.
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.
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.