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Thursday, 3 January, 2002, 17:13 GMT
Uncovering Alaska's past
Alaskan lake and mountains
Native Alaskan village remains are being uncovered
Malcolm Billings reports from Alaska

Alaska is often called the world's last frontier. It is a vast wilderness, thinly populated and covered with forests, tundra and vast ice fields that end in spectacular glaciers.

Active volcanoes and earthquakes have often laid waste to ancient and modern settlements and the small population of about 600,000 benefit greatly from the oil fields on the Arctic coast.

Archaeology is therefore not the first thing that comes to mind in this part of the world.

Exxon Valdez
Exxon Valdez: The clean-up revealed 1,000 archeological sites
But on a recent visit I discovered not only a great deal of archaeological activity, but a building programme of museums to house important objects taken out of the area by collectors in the 19th Century.

Part of the Alaskan traveller's essential kit is a couple of bells. They are quite like the bells we have on our cat's collar in London to warn birds in the garden that they are about to be pounced on.

But these are grizzly bear bells, big ones about the size of an egg.

Among the piles of bright yellow overalls, woolly hats, and thigh-length waders, I couldn't see any instructions about attaching the bells.

But fortunately, before I started talking about our cat to the bearded, barrel-chested assistant, the penny dropped. I of course would be the one wearing the bells.

And they were going to be useful where we were going. The archaeological survey was among the Kenai Fjords in the Bay of Alaska.

New sites found

Yes, there is archaeology in Alaska. Many sites dating back a thousand years have been found recently by archaeologists from the Arctic Studies Centre of the Smithsonian Museum in Washington.

The glaciers growled and grumbled as bits the size of double decker buses cracked and broke off into the fjord

It was the disastrous oil spill by the tanker Exxon Valdez in 1989 that gave archaeology a spur.

During the clean up, archaeologists found more than 1,000 sites along the coast. Since then, expeditions have been recording and studying them.

I had not expected such a spectacular landscape. There are fjords all along the coast. I looked up at pale blue walls of ice 150 feet above my head where glaciers ended in the sea.

The glaciers growled and grumbled as bits the size of double decker buses cracked and broke off into the fjord.

During the last millennium villages had to be abandoned as the wall of ice inched towards them.

Glacier, Alaska
The tribal elders' stories told of glaciers over-running villages
The glaciers began retreating in the 18th Century, but the inhabitants never returned.

Our research vessel anchored in the bay and, as we headed for the site of a village in a rubber dinghy, I looked across the water and saw the black dorsal fin of a shark circling around us.

This sea is teeming with sharks, seals, sea lions, and whales, which may suddenly appear too close for comfort.

Beads and a sauna

In Aialik Bay we landed on a bank of shingle that marked the edge of a small piece of forested land clinging to the mountainous side of the bay.

Our first find was among the roots of a tree that had been blown over.

As often happens, it had rooted itself over a house and, in the hole in the ground we could see an ancient floor where oil lamps and polished stone tools had been left.

There was also a lot of burnt and cracked stone that was typical of the steam baths - a sort of ancient sauna - that the Alaskan natives used to build into their houses.

In another site, little red beads have been found that dated from the 18th Century when the Russians explored the north Pacific, found Alaska and colonised its vast emptyness.

They named their capital on the coast New Archangel.

The Alaskans were converted to Orthodox Christianity by the Russian church, which for over two centuries has had a large following.

Russian heritage

Some of the tribal elders who were with us in the the survey party had Russian surnames.

They had been invited on a tour of ancient village sites to record their comments for an aural history project which the Smithsonian Museum in Washington is running alongside the archaeological survey.

We listened to the elders telling stories that they had heard from their parents and grandparents.

They talked about the seals that were so plentiful, about the size of the settlement and the way of life - the hunting and gathering.

Descriptions of the houses and their location, handed down through generations, matched what the archaeologists had found in the ground.

At another site they told stories about glaciers over-running their villages and how they had to move.

Oil refinery, Alaska
Alaska's 600,000 population benefits greatly from the oil fields
Russia sold its colony to the Americans in 1867 for about $2 an acre, and it was the Americans who brought Alaska to statehood in 1959.

During that time, however, Washington either ignored the Alaskan native culture or actively tried to stamp it out.

But in recent years this culture has begun to flourish again along with a new interest in museums and archaeology.

A new law about the restitution of cultural property, now in force in the United States, means that native communities have the right to claim back from museums human remains of ancestors, and items of special cultural or religious importance.

Reclaiming history

Alaska is poised to take its share of what went missing in the 19th Century.

New local museums are being built, like the one at Homer on a spit of land at the entrance to Cook Inlet, and I suspect that the objects returned from Washington will face strong competition.

The museum has an excellent natural history gallery with an exhibition about Alaskan bears.

There is more than just skins, showcases and text - the curators have located a family of bears in the forest and have installed a video link that comes up in real time on screens in the gallery.

See also:

07 Oct 01 | Americas
Alaska clean-up 'could take years'
02 Aug 01 | Americas
Head to head: Arctic oil drilling
11 Apr 01 | Americas
Opposition grows to Alaska oil drill
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