Archaeologists Make Well-Preserved Discovery

Photo by Patrick Yack, APRN - Anchorage: Anne Jensen in her lab in Barrow, Alaska.

Archaeologists in Barrow have begun to use ground penetrating radar as a way to detect burial sites beneath the tundra. Though it is a relatively untested technique in the Arctic, they have received some promising results.

When UIC Sciences Senior Scientist Anne Jensen decided to team up with Radford University’s Rhett Herman to bring up the ground penetrating radar – or GPR – system, no one was really sure how well it would work.

Not even the manufacturer knew how accurate the system would be on the mostly unconsolidated gravel laying on top of a layer of permafrost that makes up much of the geology in the area.

According to Jensen, it turns out that the GPR didn’t work very well on areas that had seen frequent vehicle traffic. Evidence of the compacted road surface could be observed up to two meters below the surface…hindering the GPR’s ability to see grave sites. But, once the crew got a little ways off the beaten track, that story changed.

“”And there, it actually was working much better. Unfortunately that was the end of their stay in rather short field season we had this year. But, there it actually did find a grave. And this was a very deeply buried grave, the most deeply buried that we have recovered. And, in fact, so deeply buried, that it’s not clear that we would have been able to detect it with normal testing procedures, because it’s just hard to dig a really decent shovel test to a meter and a half in loose gravel,” Jensen said.

Jensen says that this burial was actually much better preserved than the more shallow burials she’s worked on that normal.

“The individual actually still had clothes, which hasn’t typically been the case. They’ve usually pretty much been skeletons by the time we found them because their not permanently frozen at the point…unlike for example in town, in Barrow where people just basically freeze and are sort of mroe freeze-dried if you will,” Jensen said.

Though they have found the body, Jensen says some cultural considerations will need to be addressed before more work can be done.

“It’s wearing a parka which is real fragile condition. We want to…we need to have the discussion with the discussion with the community about whether they want to try to preserve parka. If so, we need to try to get some funds to do that, and we don’t want to start trying to take them out of the parka until we have the physical anthropologist here. Because at that point we’d like to have him study, take his measurements and then put the person right into the box,” Jensen said.

Jensen says the bodies don’t leave Barrow as people study it.. And once studies are complete, a service will be held and the body will be reburied.

“They make them very nice plywood boxes. We get them nice, dignified polyester…no, not polyester…but, you know, fleece, nice warm cloth. Most of them had caribou or some kind of fur under them, but that’s just prohibitive to get that much good caribou fur. People kind of need it for modern use. Anyway, it doesn’t last that long, so it seemed like nice, thick fleece would last longer,” Jensen said.

According to Jensen, studies – such as this one – in the Arctic have become even more important because of the changing climate. Coastal erosion and changing of the permafrost layer have added to the sense of urgency.

“All of these Arctic archaeological sites that have wonderful organic preservation, you know, everything is preserved. The skins, the hide, the wood, everything…it’s not going to be. It’s going to be more like Nuvuk where you have partial preservation where the human remains are skeletons as opposed to sort of freeze dried. And those haven’t been thawed that long, I don’t think,” Jensen said.

Jensen says that though the GPR only found one new burial site this season, she believes there are probably more graves in the area.

Patrick Yack, APRN – Anchorage also contributed to this report.

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Josh is the Statewide Morning News Reporter/Producer for Alaska Public Media | jedge (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.550.8455 | About Josh

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