Posted by: Brian | June 15, 2009

Back From Rat (and Kiska) – Updated

Seal carving from RAT-080

Seal carving from RAT-080

I am back from a successful field season in the Aleutian Islands. We discovered new sites, collected charcoal and faunal samples, and found a few interesting artifacts. We initially focused our efforts on Rat Island’s western half.  The sites we discovered included large villages, small villages, isolated housepits, and lithic scatters. The lithic scatters were found in upland settings in naturally deflated ‘blowouts’. We looked for inland housepits – particularly around lakes, but found none. One large village we found was on top a terrace some 80 meters above the current beach. These villagers would have had great ocean views, but a steep climb when bringing food and fuel to their homes.

Caroline Funk on survey through Rat Island's interior

Caroline Funk on survey through Rat Island's interior

Rat Island village site (RAT-080) - green vegetation covers site.

Rat Island village site (RAT-080) - green vegetation covers site.

We were joined on the island by a crew of biologists from Island Conservation a nonprofit organization working on the rat eradication projection. The biologists set up their camp a short distance from our camp – out of view, but close enough to be neighbors. Their job is to look for evidence of rats, collect dead birds to assess the collateral damage from the poison, and count live birds to monitor the changes since the rats were removed.

I don’t know what the biologists found, but we saw one dead rat and no sign of live ones. We saw quite a few live birds – including two rock sandpipers on nests with eggs. The eggs in particular are a good sign of the missing rats. Still, the biologists will need to return next year (assuming they find no rats this year) for another field season before they can be convinced that the rats are truly gone. A few hundred survivors would be hard to detect, even with all the biologists’s efforts, yet those few hundred would rapidly repopulate the island.

Our camp on Rat Island

Our camp on Rat Island

Rock Sandpiper

Rock sandpiper just after it jumped off it's nest.

We’re also hoping to return to Rat Island next year. If we do, there will be an opportunity for a couple of Hamline students to join us. Working in the Aleutian Islands, traveling on the Tiglax, and living in such a remote wilderness is an incredible experience. It’s the opportunity of a life time for the people lucky enough to work here. Anyone interested in being a part of our crew better get in my lab right away and start making themselves really useful.

We finished our work on Rat with time to spare so we joined Debbie Corbett and a crew of historians and preservationists on Kiska Island. They went to Kiska to map World War II features. We went to Kiska to add to our data on Unangan settlements in the Rat Islands. Both groups were successful. I’ll write about our Kiska work in a later post. Anyone interested can also check out my Flickr account to see some more Rat/Kiska photographs.

Update 1: NPR’s Morning Edition just had a story on the Rat eradication efforts. They report that the USFWS has announced increase bird nesting.

Update 2: More on our 2009 field season is found in my post on Kiska.


  1. It looks like you caught the tail end of winter – I liked the snow on the ground in the photo of Caroline on survey.

    Out on Chirikof Island I was shocked at how far away and high up we found big village sites. And we would not have found them if the cattle had not overgrazed the place and caused extensive erosion. I think those high up terrace edge sites were preferred because you could see stuff far out over the ocean (whales, people coming etc). Also the winds may have helped dry fish etc.

    Also – on the King Salmon River we found 3 multiroom housepits just like what you excavated upriver. Looked exactly like 500 year old Koniag HP’s from Kodiak.


  2. Yeah, it was pretty cold our first few days (mid to upper 30s for lows and highs in the low 40s with a 35 mph wind out of the north – brrrr).

    Very cool that you found multi-room houses. Will you be able to test them? Did you see anything that you thought might be a ‘transitional’ feature like you’ve seen on Kodiak?

  3. It was nice to find the classic Kodiak multiroom houses there – we camped next to them and felt right at home. No roof sods and they were the only houses where we had an easy time finding charcoal. I’m willing to bet that that they date 400 BP (they had cold trap tunnels to the siderooms and lots of siderooms off of the corners – so on the early side, but not super early).

    The other houses were more complicated! Totally weird not to be able to recognize house forms. And everything else was different from Kodiak. But we did notice that the big bomb craters are not all identical. We noticed at least three different styles. Some had roof sods, some did not, some had rich floors – the ones with siderooms had roof sods and virtually sterile floors that had been frequently recharged with sods. Anyway, we mapped 107 houses but I am positive that there are multiple components. Makes sense when you realize how few places there are in that neck of the woods to put a village.

    On the flight home we went looking for villages and just went mound to mound – there was a big village on top of every one. Our pilot loved it. Patrick

  4. If you allow virtual lab volunteers, I am an eager applicant! Rat Island looks awesome!

    Also I wanted to mention you were quoted in this month’s American Archaeology. Love it when that happens 🙂

    Enjoy the rest of the summer Brian

    • Be careful what you offer – since even ‘virtual’ lab workers can do data entry!

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