On a brush-covered bluff overlooking Womens Bay on Kodiak Island sit the remnants of a small Alutiiq summer house dating back more than 1,000 years, where a family would have harvested salmon during late summer and early fall.
“This is one I’ve never seen before. It’s not a formal sod house, it’s more of a lean-to structure,” said Patrick Saltonstall, curator of archaeology at the Alutiiq Museum who led the dig.
The findings tell a simple story of a family’s summer “fish camp” house where they would sleep, eat, and harvest and smoke fish.
With a grant from Alaska Native corporation Koniag, Inc., Saltonstall and his four-member crew spent one week digging three areas, each up to 1 meter deep, to find out how Alutiiq people utilized the resources of Womens Bay.
The team unearthed a one-room structure with a stone hearth that was likely a lean-to building — a sloping structure that is low in the back and high in front — that had a sod and hide-skin roof and two posts at the front.
The crew unearthed fire-cracked rock — rock altered by heat — under a layer of ash from the 1912 Katmai volcanic eruption. The location under the ash told archeologists that the dwelling was well over 1,000 years old. Saltonstall estimated that the ruins could potentially date as far back as 2,500 years ago.
“This was just a single tiny little structure with a hearth in it,” Saltonstall said. “This is older than the sites with multiple rooms” that are more typical of the ancient Alutiiq dwellings that have previously been found.
He said he had never found a lean-to building so undisturbed because they are usually destroyed when other structures are built near or on top of them.
Amy Steffian, chief curator at the Alutiiq Museum, said in a press release that “Alutiiq Elders named this kind of site, Kugyasiliwik — Place to Make Nets, for the stockpile of net-making stones found in its deposits.”
The archaeologists also found ulu knives, called ulukat in Alutiiq, traditionally crafted in a variety of sizes and shapes depending on their specific purpose.
The Alutiiq Museum website said that these knives were often used for gutting, beheading and filleting salmon — which were processed in large quantities for winter food — and were also used in household cooking and sewing tasks.
“The family was transforming leaves of slate into sharp-edged cutting tools most likely for butchering fish,” Steffian said in the press release about the family that had constructed the dwelling.
Saltonstall noted that the building was probably used in the late summer because of the lean-to design, with the front part of the room probably left open.
If it were a winter home, it would have sod walls and a tunnel entrance. Traditional Alutiiq sod and thatch-covered houses were partially built underground with a driftwood frame covered with sod for insulation.
The entrances to such homes had low doors that led into a large room with a central hearth and benches covered in animal skins around the walls for sitting and sleeping. They typically had multiple rooms, unlike the most recent discovery at Womens Bay.
The building found by Saltonstall’s team was constructed far from resources, with the primary towns likely in areas with more food sources. Larger villages were found where the Coast Guard base and Cliff Point are currently located.
“Why would you build a house there in the dead of winter where there would be no resources for you? You'd rather be out the bay where there were seals,” Saltonstall said.
He said that prior to 4,000 years ago, the population was smaller and the Alutiiq people mostly lived on sea mammals. About 4,000 years ago, dependence on fish grew and the population increased.
He also said that 1,000 years ago, people shifted from using nets to weirs and fish traps, and also started constructing houses with multiple rooms.
The site of the current excavation was originally found several years ago by high school interns participating in the museum’s Community Archeology Program, while they were conducting site surveys.
“It fit perfectly,” Saltonstall said of the site in relation to his research into how Womens Bay has been used through time. “You don't dig a site because it's there. You dig a site because it might get destroyed, or it has the potential to answer a question.”