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1410_RadioLab

Earliest Matanuska Valley Residents Shrouded in Mystery

Archaelogy students "troweling" or scraping down the sides a bottom of the unit.

The "triangle" stone.

Somewhere North of what is now Trapper Creek, an ancient hunting party stopped for lunch. That was about 8,000 years ago, according to carbon dating on some of the artifacts that have been located at the site by archaeologists. The dig has yielded rudimentary stone tools, but, as yet, little information about the mysterious people who stopped there.

Whoever they were, they sure knew how to pick a spot – high ground, looking down on a canopy of dense birch and fir. Beyond that, a stunning view of the Talkeetna mountains.

“We are also looking over a swamp, which may have been a former river where large game may have been coming through, which is why this site would have been critical for big game hunting. It would have been a campsite looking our over the valley.”

Fran Seeger-Boss, with the Matanuska Susitna Borough cultural resources department, sifts through dirt from the Trapper Creek dig.

Fran Seeger-Boss is the Matanuska Susitna Borough’s cultural resources director. She’s here on the knoll, looking out at thunderheads brewing behind the mountains. She says thousands of years ago, the trees were not there.

“The environment would have been quite different, say, 10,000 years ago, or even 8,000 years ago. After the recession of the glaciers I think it’s just human nature to explore hew regions and this is a new region that was opening up south of the Alaska range. And also because fauna and flora were moving in to this area, it was only natural to follow the flow of animals and vegetation.”

Brian Wygal, Asst. Professor at Adelphi University's Anthropology Department.

But now, it’s a sunny, 70 degrees day, and would be buggy, too, except for the breeze that blows the mosquitoes and noseeums away.

This year New York’s Adelphi University is partnering in the dig. That gives archaeology students a crack at hands on work. Four pits, called units, are carefully measured one meter by one meter on the knoll. Brian Wygel, an Adelphi assistant archaeology professor, says the pits hold clues to ancient peoples

“We don’t know who they were. We know them only by their stone tools. And so, from their technology, we call them the Denali complex of people. And what we speculate is that they originated from North of the Alaska Range, probably the Nenana Valley, perhaps the Tanana Valley, somewhere North in the foothills of the central Alaska Range. And gradually over time, moved through the central Alaska Range and came into this valley. And we are trying to understand if they did that seasonally, or if they moved down in one migration and occupied this region then yearround.”

Student Vince Pane scrapes dirt into dustpan

The crew has been here about a week, meticulously scraping dirt down, literally about a half sixteenth of an inch at a time. It’s slow, painstaking work . They use small hand trowels, scraping the sides and bottoms of the units, looking for stones, flakes, anything that could be identified as a tool, or a clue to what went on here all those years ago

Today, they are about 3 feet down. Varied colored layers of dirt define the passage of time on the sides of the pits. The charcoal colored layer is the remains of a fire, a cooking fire perhaps?

“As you can see here, that dark. That’s a really nice sealed hearth inside that excavation unit. We would make sure not to handle it at all with our fingers and possibly put it into tin foil right away and handle it that was so we don’t get the residue from our hands on it. “

Seeger-Boss says no human or animal bone fragments have come to light. The soil here is so acidic that it would have eaten away at any of those long ago.

The unit showing strata or layers of different types of earth. The dark layer is a "sealed hearth" showing carbon, from a fire perhaps.

The location of objects discovered in the dirt are mapped with meticulous precision, using surveyors’ tools

Students sweep the dirt from the units by tiny bits into plastic dustpans. Then it’s dumped in five gallon buckets, and carried by the bucket load to a homemade sifter.

Student Vince Pane shakes the dirt through 1/8 inch mesh screening

“We are sifting through all the sediment that we dig out to make sure we are not missing anything that is culturally relevant that was shaped by human hands. “

And the dig is yielding plenty of artifacts. Student Rob Michaels uncovers a flat, perfectly triangular stone. It is uniformly shaped along each side.

“It’s a piece of worked stone, possibly something that was used. It could be a tool, it could not be, but it’s definitely something that’s a little weird to find in a bunch of rocks.”

Professor Brian Wygel takes a look at the stone

“And what we can see from here is the point of impact, from what would have been their hammer stone on the top here. That’s one attribute that suggests that people modified this stone. The other thing is that it leaves flaked scars or the remnants of other flakes that were knocked off of this piece.”

The triangle was unearthed from a unit that has a long, heavy rock lying at the bottom. Rob Michaels has been scraping to reveal the big rock all day.

“Well, right now it looks like it might be an anvil of some kind which they might have made stone tools on our out of. We’re going to wait until we pull it out and then take it to the lab and find out if we can find any tool marks on it. It’s way bigger than a lot of the other stuff we’ve been pulling out of here from the till.”

Another find emerges from his effort. A hand-sized rock, heavy and flat at the top. It tapers down to a thin semicircular shape.

Could it be the prototype of the Alaska women’s knife- the ulu? Further study will determine that. Seeger-Boss says the dig will continue until they’ve taken all they can find.

“When we find sterile soils and basic gravels and we know there is probably no more human occupation past that point, that’s where we stop.”

Over the past 8 years, quite a collection of artifacts have emerged from the site. The stone tools are cleaned, catalogued, studied for years. The artifacts belong to the Matanuska Susitna Borough, which eventually will place them with the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Museum of the North. Future Alaskans can see them and wonder about their place in the scheme of time.

The anvil shaped stone at the bottom of the unit

Students shake dirt through sifters.

Marking the exact location of finds with surveyors tools.

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Photos by Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage.

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