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.
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.
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.