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Sampling the delights of Nunalleq

August 19, 2012

Well, we’ve found some beautiful artefacts and some impressive structural house features over the last three weeks, but I’m going to tell you about another aspect of this excavation, which is just as interesting and important, if a little less photogenic: the bioarchaeological and environmental samples.

The conditions which have preserved the wooden artefacts you’ve been seeing in the ‘Artefact of the Day’ posts have resulted in the survival of other organic materials that are very rarely found on archaeological sites. These include patches of berry seeds, clam and mussel shells, rye grass matting and, most excitingly (for my area of interest at least…), pieces of human hair and animal fur.

The animal fur may have come from domestic animals kept in the house, from butchering or from clothes and other objects made of animal pelts. It will be examined microscopically to determine what animals it came from. In a few cases we found bones alongside the fur, which makes the process of identification a little easier! The human hair had been cut and left on the house floors, and looks like it could have been cut off at the hairdressers yesterday! Stable isotope and DNA analysis will be carried out on the hair and fur, which will tell us more about who these people were, what they and the animals around them ate and how they dealt with seasonal changes in the types of foods available.

Large ‘bulk’ samples of soil (in 2 litre bags) have also been collected, which will be examined for things too small to be collected in the screens or seen without a microscope. This includes insect remains, tiny fish bones and plant remains. By looking at these samples we can understand more about what life in the house was like, such as whether people kept animals inside or whether different areas were used for specific activities. The plant remains can also tell us about the time of year that the house floor deposits accumulated, which will be particularly interesting for the burnt house, as that will give us information about the season in which it was burned down. We’ve also been taking samples from patches of shells and fish, so that they can be studied more closely, and concentrations of seeds and sections of grass matting have been collected, which will be used for radiocarbon dating the layers they come from.

This has hopefully given you a bit of an overview of some of the work which is going to keep a lot of people (myself included!) busy for quite a long time after we go home from Alaska!


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