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3,000 year old 'super structure' unearthed at interior Kodiak Island site

One of several archaeological sites the Alutiiq Museum archaeological staff surveyed near Karluk Lake
Alutiiq Museum Archaeology Department & Repository
One of several archaeological sites the Alutiiq Museum archaeological staff surveyed near Karluk Lake.

There are over 2,400 archaeological sites of all types across the Kodiak Archipelago; many of which date back to when the Alutiiq/Sugpiaq people first started living off the land. Archaeologists are focusing on some surprising finds from one area in particular in the island’s interior as they plan more digs for this summer.

The Alutiiq/Sugpiaq people have been using Karluk Lake for more than 6,000 years. It’s located in the southwestern part of the island, near the village of Larsen Bay. Archaeologists recently completed a dig at one major site in the area and plan to excavate another site later this summer, which is only hundreds of years old rather than thousands. Patrick Saltonstall, the curator of archaeology at the Alutiiq Museum, said the upcoming dig involves a ceremonial house or qasgiq.

Separately, Saltonstall referred to one of the sites the team has already excavated at Karluk Lake, site 309, as a super structure. This was an unexpected find for the team of archaeologists, especially because of the amount of labor that would have gone into building it.

“It was dug two feet into the ground, over that whole area. All that dirt was taken outside and then put on the roof. They had wood lined all the way around the walls, upright planks, to hold back the wall," Saltonstall explained. "And we actually analyzed the wood and it looks like it was all cottonwood that they used to build it. They had to work all that cottonwood with stone tools."

He thinks this would have been a fairly typical house from 3,000 years ago, located on the coast. Most likely it was not used as a winter house as it did not contain a fireplace or hearth.
In total there were seven structures surveyed in the surrounding area of Karluk Lake, but more could be found once the team starts digging in other sites later this summer.

Karluk Lake super structure fully excavated
Alutiiq Museum Archaeology Department
The Karluk Lake super structure was fully excavated by Alutiiq Museum Archaeology team as of summer, 2023.

At some point though the 20 by 15-foot-long superstructure burned down. There’s clues left behind from that, too. For example, no human remains were found on site, so Saltonstall believes no one died in the fire, and everything important had been taken out of the big house.
But some artifacts that were found around the structure show more of a temporary, seasonal use of the site for fishing and hunting.

“Well we did find a lot of ulus for cleaning fish, which is what we expected. And we found the whetstones for sharpening them," Saltonstall said. "But we found a lot of hunting tools too, which was sort of a surprise – a lot of slate lances. And in later time period sites we actually found a lot of bear bone up there [at Karluk Lake], so there was quite a bit of hunting of bears it seems.”

Archaeologists also found a woven grass mat inside the super structure, made with a weaving technique that is consistent with patterns used up until 200 years ago.

Although digging is complete at this site, Saltonstall and a team of about five staff plan to do more excavations around Karluk Lake later this summer, in August. Saltonstall said that work is paid for by Koniag Inc. and the Brown Bear Center.

Archaeological site at Karluk Lake called site 309
Alutiiq Museum Archaeology Department & Repository
Archaeologists dig into layers on layers site at Karluk Lake called site 309, which revealed a 'super structure'.

Sites like the ones around Karluk Lake contribute to a historical record of Alutiiq culture. Alutiiq Elder and cultural bearer Ruth Dawson spoke about the significance of that record, before she passed away in 2022. She was part of a Stewards of Heritage projectwith the Alutiiq Museum.
Dawson also served nine years on the Native Village of Afognak Tribal Council where she actively participated in Dig Afognak Cultural Camp and supported the preservation of the Alutiiq language.

“Our written history is just 250 years old yet the [Alutiiq] people have lived on Kodiak Island for 7,000 plus years. Archaeology sites are our library, they hold the history of our people," Dawson said.

As the summer excavation season approaches, Saltonstall urges residents who come across artifacts or historical sites that are undiscovered on Kodiak Island, to document and report them to Alutiiq Museum staff. For more information about reporting artifacts or sites like the ones at Karluk Lake, contact the archaeological team at the Alutiiq Museum. It is illegal to remove artifacts from any archaeological site without permission from the land owner.

“I encourage people to take photos, report them. Sometimes if you tell us and take a photo, we can get permission from the landowner to collect it," Saltonstall said. "And most importantly never collect human remains. Never pick them up. Never disturb them.”

Saltonstall said he has learned about dozens of new archaeological sites around the Kodiak Archipelago from residents reporting them to him. His full presentation about the Karluk Lake sites can be viewed online at the Alutiiq Museum website.

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