The museum on the UAF campus serves as one of the primary repositories for archaeological collections for Alaska.

This means we take on archaeological collections from all over Alaska through trust agreements with public land agencies, private landowners, traditional councils, and Alaska Native Corporations. We began acquiring archaeological collections in the 1920s and now care for over 7,000 different collections and over 1,000,000 individually catalogued cultural objects like stone projectile points, ivory harpoon heads, and ceramic oil lamps, but also specimens from the natural world like animal bones, wood, charcoal, and soil samples. These collections come from every corner of Alaska, and span 14,000 years of human history.

As the archaeology collection manager at the University of Alaska Museum of the North, I’m fortunate to regularly interact with researchers accessing the collections for a variety of different studies relating not only to anthropology, but increasingly by artists and various biological disciplines as well. The animal bones, wood, charcoal and soil samples that archaeologists collect during summer surveys and site excavations can serve as paleo-archives (archives with a long time depth) that are used to describe and better understand past environments and ecosystems.

One ongoing project which highlights this type of collection use well, is funded through the North Pacific Research Board and is titled “A 4,000-year Retrospective Study of Seabird Diets: Insights from Archaeological Collections on Sanak Island, Alaska.” This project is a partnership between the principal investigator Nicole Misarti who is a faculty member and director of the Water and Environmental Research Center at UAF, Liza Mack who is executive director of the Aleut International Association, and the museum.

Dr. Misarti was part of the team of archaeologists that carried out the original project between 2006 and 2010 to excavate sites in the Sanak Island archipelago, which is approximately 50 kilometers south of the Alaska Peninsula in the Gulf of Alaska. The goals of the original project were to document the overall biological complexity of the Sanak archipelago during the past 4,000 years through the systematic excavation of archaeological sites. This project expands on that work by taking a more specific look at the nearly 17,000 bird bones recovered from those original excavations that are now curated at the Museum of the North. With a team of professional researchers and graduate and undergraduate students and with the aid of bird skeletons from the museum’s ornithology department, each bird bone is identified to at least the family level, but ideally down to species when possible. Each bone is also identified to element (femur, tibia, rib, etc.), side (right or left), and in the case of fragments whether it is a central or end portion of the bone (archaeological bone is often highly fragmented).

Seabirds can act as monitors of oceanic environmental change and were historically, and currently are harvested by Unangax people in the area. We are looking at the relative numbers of birds harvested through time and the diets of several species of birds that represent different ocean environments. This will help us track oceanic environmental change. The old saying “you are what you eat” is true, and bones preserve many important aspects of an individual’s life, regardless of the species. In this case we will look specifically at the carbon and nitrogen preserved in these bones because they directly reflect diet. For example, the carbon and nitrogen signal in a bird that is eating close to shore will not look anything like that of a bird that is feeding far out to sea.

The overarching goal of this project is to track changes in diet, feeding location, and abundance of different bird species in the Gulf of Alaska and to test the links of these changes to either natural ecosystem changes over time and/or human-caused pressures. By merging social and natural science we hope to better understand ecosystem changes that have occurred in the past, and to also help monitor potential future ecosystem change in the Gulf of Alaska. Ultimately this study will provide a long-term perspective for future management and conservation decisions.

This project to look at seabird change though time is also important to local communities in the Sanak Island region like King Cove and Sand Point and Dr. Mack, who was raised in King Cove, is a co-investigator on this project. Birds have a long-standing importance to the culture and diet of the Unangax people who have inhabited the Eastern Aleutian Islands for thousands of years. Despite the predominately laboratory-based focus of this project, the results will have meaning for community members beyond just the purely scientific results.

Dr. Mack is actively involved in policy and community development as a community member and academic scholar and will coordinate trips to both King Cove and Sand Point to engage school students and community members and to incorporate local social and cultural considerations into the scientific research process. She is also leading a native language portion for this project where she will work with Unangam Tunuu speakers to incorporate local information about birds into the final results of this research.

Explore More

Family programs from the UA Museum of the North are focusing on bones during October. Virtual Early Explorers, for children five and younger, encourages exploration in galleries with a hunt-and-find from October 9-15. Caregivers can also download at-home activities. Children six and older are invited to learn about bones in the Virtual Junior Curators program. Register in advance to receive a materials packet and Zoom session with museum educators on Oct. 16. Activities will also be shared online. Visit bit.ly/uamnhandson for more info.

Get in the Halloween spirit at the UAMN! Visit anytime between Oct. 21-31 to participate in a spooky scavenger hunt, snap a selfie at our photo op, and enter to win a prize! Prize drawing to be held Nov. 1. Kids can also pick up a free goody bag while supplies last. More info at bit.ly/museumhalloween.

The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. For more information about the museum’s collections, programs, and events, visit www.uaf.edu/museum or call 907-474-7505.

Scott Shirar is the archaeology collection manager for the University of Alaska Museum of the North.

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