By Jenny Neyman
Anthropology students at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus got a lesson Nov. 19 and 20 in how history can become a current event.
Nearly a millennia ago, long before traffic snaked along College Loop Road’s curvy route to the public-access fishing holes and expanding KPC campus along the bank of the Kenai River, the area was used for some of the same reasons it’s used for today.
People pulled salmon from the Kenai River at its tributary Slikok Creek, to freeze and eat all winter long. They learned about ecology and biology, culture and sociology, science and engineering. But they didn’t need fancy fishing platforms or college facilities to do it. For them, fishing, teaching and learning were all a daily part of routine life.
Hundreds upon hundreds of years before College Loop Road, KPC, the state’s university system or even Western inhabitation of what would become the state of Alaska existed, the area’s Athabascan Native population, the Dena’ina, found the area that’s now home to the flourishing Kenai River Campus to be a fertile place to make their home.
A Dena’ina village of about 75 people thrived on the banks of Slikok Creek, where inhabitants had easy access to the bountiful salmon runs in the Kenai River. They spread out for hundreds of yards around their five houses, constructing more than 100 food cache pits in the ground to store the summer’s harvest of fish for food during the winter months.
This winter, KPC is looking at expanding, as well. With the passage of Proposition B in the November election, approving bond funding for various University of Alaska capital projects, plans are progressing to construct a student dormitory at the Kenai River Campus. The building is slated to be located across College Loop Road from the campus, on a lot that’s currently vacant except for a gravel pit and access road.
About 800 years ago, the spot wasn’t vacant, and the college has decided to examine how it was utilized in the past before proceeding with plans for the future.
On Nov. 19 and 20, KPC anthropology professor Alan Boraas led volunteer student crews in an archeological dig to excavate and document food cache pits left by the Slikok Creek Dena’ina villagers. Two of the pits are right where the footprint of the new dorm building is expected to go.
“The state Office of History and Archeology recommended that work be done on this, essentially to gather the information so the dormitory could go forward,” Boraas said.
Boraas was involved in mapping the village site along Slikok Creek, marking the locations of five house sites and more than 100 food cache pits that were carbon dated to around 1,200 A.D. Knowing the area was used by the Dena’ina, the state Office of History and Archeology recommended that the spot slated for construction of the dorm, parking lot, access road, sewer and utility installation, etc., be further surveyed to see if any more remnants of Native inhabitation could be found.
The university system contracted with archeologist Dick Reger to do the survey the first week of October. Sure enough, while walking the area, looking for telltale depressions in the ground contour, Reger found four cache pits missed in the initial survey.
“They dig the pit out and they store fish or whatever they’re putting in the pit, and then that will rot out through time and just leave a depression,” Reger said. “You’re out here looking at the ground level and seeing what the normal ground surface looks like and then you come up and see a pit like that. That irregularity in the normal ground surface is what tips you off to what you’re looking at.”
Action on the discovery waited for the outcome of the election, since the possibility of a dorm hinged on the passage of Prop B. With success at the polls and the university system supportive of investigating the site before construction plans progress, Boraas decided to conduct a dig sooner, rather than later. Even if that did mean digging into snow and a layer of frozen ground.
“That’s why we’re out here in the winter. This is not normal,” Boraas said. “Since the university has recognized the
importance of this site it was important for us to come out and do this work now, even though, one, the regents still have to approve this and, two, they won’t start building until summer. But they need to know where the footprint will be so they can design the sewer and everything else.”
Typically, archeology excavation projects in Alaska take place in May or June after the ground has thawed. But a quirky start to winter this year extended the possibility of digging later than usual.
“This couldn’t happen in most other years because we had a snow before we had a heavy frost, so the snow effectively insulated the ground from frost. Therefore when we came out, the top layer just came off in chunks, which is actually easier than working in the summer,” Boraas said.
He asked for volunteers in two of his anthropology classes this semester, and got about 15 takers to help over the two days.
“It’s a real tribute to these students to hang in there doing this,” Boraas said. “I’m very proud they can come out and deal with winter, not whine, and nobody’s complained. They seem to be excited to be part of something. This is the first experience many of them have had.”
Anthropology major Jared Penning, who graduated from Skyview High School, didn’t have his enthusiasm cooled by the dirty work of the dig or below-freezing temperatures.
“It’s been great. It actually hasn’t been that cold. It was beautiful yesterday and we’ve got a fire going, and enough work to keep warm,” he said. “It’s been a great experience. I’m so glad I didn’t miss it.”
Penning said he had been considering majoring in computer engineering, but decided he didn’t want to be stuck inside at a desk for his career. Digging trenches, sifting through dirt, carefully smoothing pit edges with a trowel, recording data and pondering what it all could mean seemed like a much better alternative, he said. And being able to do it all right in the college’s front yard is even better.
“I was going to college up in Fairbanks and I’d heard they covered up a few (prehistoric Native sites) up there. And I
couldn’t believe that the university would do that. For an institution of learning it seems like a display of ignorance,” he said. “But right here with the campus you can go out the door and do this. This is pretty much our classroom. We talked about it in class and we got to go out and see it. There aren’t many schools that can boast that.”
The work involves excavating, measuring and drawing profiles of the pits noting the stratification of ground material layers, as well as searching for and documenting artifacts. The Dena’ina practiced today’s equivalent of “leave no trace” camping, leaving few artifacts to be found. They believed in showing respect to the fish and game they harvested by using as much of an animal as possible and returning whatever couldn’t be used to the creature’s natural habitat. They honored the land by leaving behind the least number of human remnants possible.
But some physical traces can still be found. The 3- to 4-foot deep food cache pits were dug in the ground, lined with birch bark and moss, filled with alternating layers of fish and grass, then topped with more birch bark and moss. The pit and its contents would freeze as a single thermal unit, keeping the fish edible through the winter and into spring.
Excavators found some bits of birch bark, which may be from the original pit, Boraas said, as well as some charcoal and clumps of fire-cracked rock. The Dena’ina boiled water by heating stones in a fire, then placing them in birch-bark baskets holding water. They also used heated stones for steam baths.
“The bottom of the pit is sand dunes — wind-blown material. You don’t find rocks in wind-blown material, so any rock here was brought in,” Boraas said.
In between each use, food cache pits were burned for sterilization.
“There are three things that are an issue in food pits. One is bears, two is wolverines and three — the worst one — is bacteria,” Boraas said. “If you get bacteria in your pit it would be very detrimental to your well-being. So, therefore, you overproduce and have more of them than you need in case bacteria or whatever gets into one of them.”
The four newly discovered pits in the area of the proposed dormitory add to more than 100 others found near the Slikok village, all serving about 75 people living in just five large houses.
“They would put more people in a house than we would today, about 10 to 20 per house, because, unlike us (today), they were living outside. The house was essentially for sleeping and cooking,” Boraas said.
One hundred-plus cache pits allowed the residents to store more than enough food than they needed for winter, in case some of it spoiled. It was also a strategy for ensuring the well-being of their larger clan. Dena’ina villages had a partner village somewhere else linked through their family system. Each village could help the other in times of need. It was all part of a highly developed system of reciprocity, mindful preparation and adapting to thrive off the benefits this particular environment offered.
“It’s easy to catch salmon but it’s hard to store it when you don’t have electricity. So what they devised is a very effective means for storing salmon for nonsalmon times. I think it’s very significant. There’s only a couple areas where you have that — Dena’ina territory and Ahtna territory (on the southern Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak). It’s part of what I think is one of the world’s great sustainable cultures. Good salmon resource, good nutritional resource and a way to store it.”
Boraas plans to send the rock samples for carbon dating, and expects to learn they date to the same time as the village site, about 1,200 A.D. The work Friday and Saturday focused on just two of the four pits, located where the dormitory is expected to be built.
When evidence of prehistoric inhabitation is discovered, there can be differing opinions among landowners, archaeologists and Native groups over what to do with the sites. Should the land suit the needs of the present, or be preserved in recognition of how it was used in the past?
In this case, if house pits had been found in the path of planned construction, Boraas said he’d advocate the building be moved. But with the cache pits, they’ve now been excavated and documented,
“You just have to make the judgment, is it important enough to stop, to move, or can we gather the information properly and essentially close it up once we’ve got the information?” he said. “These are not icons in the sense that they can’t be touched, but at the same time, we can gather the information, we can publish it and we can go on from there. There are at least two others out here that won’t be touched, that can be preserved for historical purposes. But it is a question, do you save everything or nothing?”
Even if these two pits aren’t saved, the lessons learned from them will be, both the physical data that comes from the excavation and the operational approach to dealing with a find such as this.
“Hopefully this will be a precedent so that when they build a football stadium in 2050, they will recognize that they have to build around or somehow deal with these sites,” Boraas said.
“I’m proud of the way the college has dealt with this,” he added, noting the students’ involvement and the help of the campus maintenance department in plowing the road to the site and sharpening shovels and tools. “I think it’s been a good project.”