Posted by: Brian | June 22, 2009

Preserving History on Kiska Island

Japanese guns at Kiska (120 mm)

Japanese guns at Kiska (120 mm)

Kiska was a bonus for our 2009 field season. This western Aleutian Island preserves a remarkable cultural landscape – with Unangan middens dotting the coastline and massive World War II alterations, by both Japanese and U.S. military forces, running from beach to mountain top. It’s fascinating to see the remnants of these three ‘cultures’ melded together in complex yet distinct land-use patterns. This blog post will focus on our survey results for Unangan (Aleut) sites. In a later post I plan to offer my impression of the WWII landscape.

I was in the western Aleutians this summer to assist Caroline Funk and Debbie Corbett’s research on Rat Island. As a survey project, their goal was to find archaeological sites and collect charcoal samples for dating. We finished a preliminary survey with time to accompany a joint Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service crew of historians and preservationists who were documenting Kiska’s World War II materials. Their work on Kiska is part of the recently designated World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument. Caroline wanted to go to Kiska so that she could expand her survey to other islands in the Rat Island group. I was just happy to see more places and more stuff.

On Kiska, like Rat Island, we found aboriginal Unangan village sites along the coast and lithic scatters on the uplands away from the villages. The lithic scatters were all discovered in exposed surfaces – either the result of natural erosion or cultural activities.  One type of cultural exposure that produced surprising results were bomb craters. We found lithic artifacts in two bomb craters on North Head. I’m wondering whether archaeologists working on other WWII sites have every found prehistoric materials in their bomb craters. This could be a first.

Lithic sample from "Kiska 1" (note AA guns in background)

Lithic sample from "Kiska 1" (note AA guns in background)

Caroline standing next to "Kiska 4" - a bomb crater with a single lithic artifact.

Caroline standing next to "Kiska 4" - a bomb crater with a single lithic artifact.

The Unangan village sites that we visited were all in spectacular settings with great ocean views and surrounded by beautiful tundra and wetlands. Most of these villages had large house pits (8 or more meters in length), thick midden deposits with well-preserved faunal assemblages, and numerous artifacts. Some sites had abundant whale bone used both for house construction and as tool raw material. The large amount of whale bone at one site had us wondering whether this community included some particularly successful whale hunters – perhaps even some powerful Unangan leaders. This same site had a lithic assemblage suggesting it was the focus of greenstone adze production. We are intrigued by the potential these sites have to help us understand the complex economy and politics of the western Aleutians.

Kiska Harbor viewed from 'Kiska 2'

Kiska Harbor viewed from 'Kiska 2'

'Kiska 9' viewed from the Tiglax

'Kiska 9' viewed from the Tiglax

House pit on 'Kiska 9'

House pit on 'Kiska 9'

Surface midden at Kiska 9

Surface midden at 'Kiska 9'

Whale bone on 'Kiska 9' (note cut marks on bone in foreground)

Whale bone on 'Kiska 9' (note cut marks on bone in foreground)

Cobble tool - combination hammerstone, anvil stone, and chopper - found at 'Kiska 9'

Cobble tool - combination hammerstone, anvil stone, and chopper - found at 'Kiska 9'

Unfortunately, the Unangan villages on Kiska have suffered considerable damage. Some sites are just gone – wiped out by the massive WWII construction activities. Other sites are being lost to coastal erosion and one site has evidence of recent digging by vandals. Kiska’s remote location makes protecting the island’s compelling historic record a difficult challenge. There is simply no way to stop people from digging where they want to, nor from taking anything they find. The WWII remains attract a relatively large number of visitors to the island. Figuring out how to accommodate these visitors, yet preserve the island’s irreplaceable cultural sites requires a balancing act between informing the public about Kiska’s preserved history and keeping secret those relics most vulnerable to collectors. As an educator, I find not telling about what we’ve learned through our field studies to be contrary to my profession. I grudgingly acknowledge, however, that there are people out there who see profit in removing relics where I see an irreplaceable link to the past.

Kiska Harbor warning - Digging is Prohibited

Kiska Harbor warning - Digging is Prohibited


  1. Brian, after my recent visit to a site on the AK peninsula I noted that previous investigators had totally different measurements for housepits than I did, and it got me thinking. On Kodiak I measure the floor space inside the walls (where the slope breaks to meet the floor). I think the previous investigators had measured the total length and width of the entire walls. I think we should start standardizing this stuff!

    For my last project i decided to measure the house pits both on the tops of the wall and the floor space inside. I also measured both the wall height above the outside surface and the depth of the pit inside the wall. The latter 2 measurements have proved very useful on Kodiak – especially determining if a house had roof sods or not. Whether a house had big built up sod walls or not is a useful thing to record! (and storage/processing pits tend to lack built up walls of any sort).

    Anyway, your houses out on Kiska were 8 meters long – is that the inside measurement?


  2. Hi Patrick,

    I agree that a surface feature recording protocol would be very useful. Uniform data collection would improve our ability to analyze macro-regional data sets. We developed some informal protocols when I worked for the BIA. We did record berm height and width – at least on some sites. We also considered the issue of how to measure depression length and width (top of the depression rim versus ‘where the slope meets the floor’). The issue that I thought most interesting was which of these measurements most accurately reflected the actual feature floor dimensions. I remember looking at some excavation data from Doug Veltre and concluding that because of wall slumpage, the rim measurements were probably better. I’ve never really re-assessed this conclusion. I’d be curious to hear what you think from your excavations.

    Regarding the Kiska houses, 8 meters is just an approximation. Our site mapping was very preliminary and usually just involved a quick field sketch and measurements of the overall site area. Caroline’s biggest need was to collect carbon samples – so we focused on testing rather than mapping. She plans on recording feature data when she returns to the Rat Islands during the next couple of years.

  3. Brian, I’ve found that the actual floor dimension versus the mapped walls actually varies depending on how the house was built. We excavated a 900 year old house that had thick roof sods and was dug into the ground but pretty much lacked built up walls, and I was amazed with the accuracy of my original map based on surface features. The dimensions were pretty much spot on. However, with Koniag era multiroom HP’s that lack roof sods but have big built up walls – there is a lot of wall creep, and you’re right the correct dimension is somewhere in the wall (I found this to be true at settlement point). I am interested in what we’ll find for the ‘bomb crater’ style houses we found over on the AK peninsula. I suspect a lot of wall creep. Patrick

  4. Brian, I am with you on the amount of info I feel should be shared with others. Isn’t that the whole idea of doing this kind of research/ survey, to share what we find with others that are not able to reach the sites on their own? And to allow comparision with other sites they might be working on or interested in?
    It will nice to see a finished preservation plan for Kiska and other islands in the Aleutians, they are a special set of problems and issues to be sure. I would liked to have visited more of the prehistoric sites, but there was not enough time to even see half of the WWII stuff, forget adding to that load.
    On the standard measurements, that would be a good thing for all aspects of archaeology. Some definitive guidelines concerning excavation, survey and beyond.

  5. […] has an interesting post on Preserving History on Kiska Island a rather unique Aleutian […]

    • Wow Kiska still looks the same after all these years. I was there in 1995. Last summer I interviewed a WWII veteran with the 10th Mountain Div. who was there in 1943, 1983 and 1993

  6. John, in your interviews with the veteran, did he happen to mention anything about the First Special Services Forces (FSSF)? I’m researching that for the Valor in the Pacific NM and would love to hear from anyone that was involved.

    • No but contact the 10th Mt in Denver. I have not heard from my veteran friend in sometime. I hope he has not passed.

      • Thanks for the reply John. I hope he has not passed as well. I’ll contact the 10th Mt, but as you will note, that comment was over 4 years ago… still, worth revisiting again. Richard

      • Yes I noticed that that was an old message. For some reason I keep going back to the island, via the web. I know I was not in a war like Art and his buddies but those weeks out there were special. This September will be 20 years since we went there with Dames & Moore and the USACE-Alaska. Looks like Art was still around in 2013 (70 years after he first went to Kiska)

  7. Brian, has there been a report finished for the 2009 trip? I’ve been moving and a bit out of the loop.

    • Hi Richard – Yes, Caroline wrote a report on the precontact archaeology. I think I can get a pdf to you if you’re interested.

  8. I would be interested, yes. Thanks. I’ll also drop you an email, my address has changed.

  9. Richard: Mr. Delaney did not mention FSSF during the interview. The whole interview was sent to the 10th Mtn Div archives at the Denver Library. I have a digital copy too if you want it. Sorry to the long delay in getting back to you. I hope the Valor in the Pacific National Monument is going (went) well.

  10. John Salvino, could you contact me directly please?

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