A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Will progress trump preservation in Alaska's Aleutian Islands?
Late in the summer of 2003, Rick Knecht perched on a steep hillside overlooking the North Pacific, marveling at a strange labyrinth of stone slowly emerging from an old marine terrace. For weeks, Knecht and a team of nearly 30 excavators had peeled back layers of turf and sediment from an ancient village on Unalaska Island, which is part of the Aleutian archipelago that stretches from Alaska to Kamchatka. The site had been known to archaeologists for at least 60 years, but each day of the dig seemed to bring new wonders. In middens dating back some 2,800 to 3,300 years, team members unearthed hundreds of exquisitely preserved bone tools--including tiny fish hooks and delicate needles--and dozens of carved ornaments that comprised some of the earliest art ever recovered from the Bering Sea area.
Archaeologist Rick Knecht holds a bone harpoon point. (Courtesy Dan Parrett)
But the thing that most struck Knecht, an archaeologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and colleague Rick Davis, an archaeologist at Bryn Mawr college in Pennsylvania, was the large number of stone-walled houses dug into the ground and the variety of architecture. Some homes were large and rectangular in shape and possessed as many as four rooms--a style that Davis says has never been seen before on the Aleutian Islands during this time period. Taken together, the finds have sparked a lot of discussion among Alaskan archaeologists. "It's a very, very rich, deep site," says University of Alaska Anchorage archaeologist William Workman, "and it has some amazing architecture."
Both Knecht and Davis expected that the local Aleut leadership on Unalaska would be fascinated by the new finds at the Amaknak Bridge site, as it was known. The ruins of the ancient village revealed for the first time just how the ancestral Aleuts had fared during the Neoglacial period, a 1,000-year interval marked by extremely cold weather which began some 4,000 years ago. Indeed, the excavation data showed in breathtaking detail just how families adapted and survived by creating new architectural forms, experimenting with new kinds of social organization, and developing new tools. But to Knecht's surprise, the modern Aleut leaders did not seem to welcome the news. Instead, he says, they seemed "upset about it, because it was in the way of the development plans of the native corporation."
The city of Unalaska sprawls across two neighboring islands--Unalaska and Amaknak--connected by a single narrow bridge built during the 1970s. Since the bridge's construction, however, Unalaska has boomed from a quiet village into the busiest fish-processing port in the United States, greatly increasing traffic. To replace the aging bridge, Alaska's Department of Transportation and Public Facilities designed a new $18.5-million structure and proposed realigning a key access road known as Henry Swanson Drive. The rerouted road, it suggested, would cut down on traffic accidents by improving the grade of the approach and the geometry of turning vehicles. But the realignment posed a clear problem: its new path ran right through the Amaknak Bridge site. Now the Aleuts are facing hard choices between preserving their heritage and improving their economic future.
Heather Pringle is a Vancouver-based freelance science journalist and author of The Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust.