Sewer Repairs Reveal Early Visitors to Sitka

Photo by Robert Woolsey. Davis holds a boulder chip.

An anthropologist has found what she believes are stone tools in a street excavation in downtown Sitka.

The finds – if they are confirmed – could help shed light on Paleolithic humans who either lived in, or passed through, the region.

First, let’s make clear that this is not an epic story about archaeology. This is about a couple of rocks that you or I – or anyone who didn’t know what to look for – would have walked right by, or maybe even have skipped into the ocean.

“It’s a simple tool where you have a certain kind of rock, and you drop that rock on another rock and a flake comes off. And if it’s nice and sharp along there you’ll use it for a while. You grip it like that – use it as a skin scraper, or for whatever you’re scraping. Then, when it gets worn out, you throw it away,” says Nancy Yaw Davis, an anthropologist by trade, and an archaeologist by coincidence.

She’s standing next to a trench in Sitka’s Monastery Street, about a block from her home. The rock, called a “boulder chip” is absolutely unremarkable – Wilma Flintstone did not have anything like this in her kitchen – until Davis folds her fingers around it and it becomes a compact and efficient-looking scraper.

Next she shows me a stone point, called a “bi-face.”

“The shape, the size – it’s about three-and-a-half inches by two inches. The unusual material, the way it could fit on a spear. And it just stood out.”

Davis honed her eye for stone tools working for years in the Cook Inlet area. She holds a Master’s degree from the University of Chicago, and a Doctorate from the University of Washington. She’s the author of numerous publications, including a major book exploring connections between prehistoric cultures in Japan and the Americas called “The Zuni Enigma.”

Monastery Street is in the epicenter of Sitka’s cultural footprint. Prior to the construction of Crescent Harbor in the late 1960s, this area was known as Crescent Beach. It’s also on the Indian River flood plain. The river is about a mile away now, but millennia ago, who knows? River meandering, glacial rebound, volcanic activity, and dramatic sea level changes have all affected the landform.

Close to where Davis found the possible stone tools is what appears to be a deposit of beach cobble. It could be an ancient river beach, or it could be fill from previous sewer work. Because this site has been disturbed many times, it doesn’t really matter. In archaeology, as in real estate, it’s sometimes location, location, location.

“Human nature really hasn’t changed over the millennia,” says Mark McCallum, the archaeologist for the Tongass National Forest. “And that the qualities that attract you or me to a location today are probably some of the same qualities that attracted people hundreds, if not thousands of years ago.”

McCallum knows Davis, but has not had a chance to examine the possible artifacts. He considers it by no means far-fetched that a backhoe could unearth stone tools in downtown Sitka. This is no Gold Rush town, or a former cannery site that has evolved into modern city. As even the Huffington Post has recently declared, places in Alaska don’t get much better – for us, or for early man.

McCallum urges us to view Sitka through a Paleo-lens.

“What would be the qualities that you would look for? Think about it. Those things that you would seek, say, level ground to erect your tent, well-drained, perhaps proximity to water, perhaps a nice view – those are all factors that a Paleo person might have sought as they made their way down the outer coast.”

McCallum says this “layer cake” of use in ancient cultures is common in archaeology worldwide. McCallum also is deliberate in how he describes Paleo cultures, as making “their way down the coast.” The Tlingit, who have a ten-thousand year-old oral tradition in Southeast Alaska, don’t record displacing anyone. That the earliest Americans might have migrated down the coast – rather than walking across a land bridge – is gaining acceptance in academic anthropology, and Davis is a proponent of the idea.

It makes it all the more interesting that Davis almost literally fell into this job.

The public works map of Monastery Street refers to it as an “area of possible archaeological significance,” and the city requires that utility work there be monitored by an archeologist. The contractor, ACI, had not been able to find one by the time work started, and Davis says she recommended several, all of whom were unavailable. In the end, they offered her the job.

“I thought of my background of archaeology in the Philippines when I was a student, excavating in a cave where people had been buried in different-sized ceramic jars for about a thousand years. And then I worked with students at Alaska Methodist University fifty years ago, if you can believe it, and we went out in the field. And the technique hasn’t changed that much. This is salvage archaeology, and I’m just stunned by how much material is here.”

Davis bagged and catalogued over 80 specimens in a few days of work, everything from colonial-era ceramic fragments, pieces of old pipe, door handles, to a piece of a stone china chamber pot.

The stone tools, however, if they prove up, will be the star discoveries for this accidental archaeologist.

Davis believes that there is still much to learn beneath Monastery Street, but the extensive disturbance of site over the centuries does not warrant shutting down the sewer work. It will still be there the next time the mains need to be replaced.

In the meantime, we’d better learn to look before we launch.

“So when you’re on a beach, don’t skip those flat rocks, unless you look at ‘em first,” says Davis.

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Robert Woolsey is a reporter at KCAW in Sitka.

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