Relive the Past

Community Archaeology at the Baranov Museum, Kodiak, Alaska

During the last ten days of June 2008, the Baranov Museum of Kodiak sponsored a community archaeology project on its property and in the adjacent Sargent Park to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the A.D. 1808 construction of the Russian-America Company magazin (warehouse), which houses the Baranov Museum. Also known as the Erskine House National Historic Landmark, the magazin is the oldest standing building in Alaska and the earliest documented wooden building on the U.S. West Coast.

The Baranov Museum Bicentennial Archaeology Project was coordinated with its Kodiak Historical Society parent and included support from the City of Kodiak and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
As initially conceived by Baranov Museum Executive Director Katie Oliver, this project was intended to involve local community volunteers and students along with professional archaeologists to understand the entire human land use history of this small part of the present-day city of Kodiak.
Mark Cassell (Territory Heritage Resource Consulting, Anchorage) served as principal investigator, with Margan Grover (Bold Peak Archaeological Services, Eklutna) as field director and Patrick Saltonstall (Alutiiq Museum, Kodiak) supervising volunteers. We were honored to have the assistance of Dr. Don Clark, longtime subarctic archaeologist and native of Kodiak. The archaeological excavations amounted to just 10 m2 of the 4500 m2 of the properties, or a 0.22% sample. In the course of its expectedly brief but surprisingly successful run, the project documented approximately 3500 years of human land use at this little piece of Kodiak. All this was conducted by dozens of volunteers and students and witnessed by hundreds of community and cruise ship visitors.

The history of the Baranov Museum and Sargent Park study block is nested within that of Kodiak. While no pre-European archaeological sites had previously been found within the city, sites occur throughout the Kodiak archipelago representing archaeological traditions dating from ca. 5500 B.C. to A.D. 1750; the latter date is roughly consonant with the development of regional indigenous Alutiiq society. The Russians set up a permanent post on Kodiak Island in 1784, and the Russian-America Company (RAC) established its Alaskan capital at the present city of Kodiak in 1792, using Native Alaskans as the primary fur trade labor source.

In 1867, Russia transferred Alaska to the U.S. government, including the RAC holdings. With transfer, the Alaska Commercial Company (ACC) obtained a commercial monopoly, using the previous RAC facilities in Kodiak and being headquartered at the 1808 RAC magazin. W. J. Erskine joined the ACC as Kodiak factor in 1908, and in 1911 bought out the ACC’s Kodiak interests, including the magazin, where he set up his own commercial company and lived with his wife, renowned for her extensive, successful, and innovative gardens.

The Erskines built an annex onto the magazin which, like many buildings in the city and region, collapsed from the heavy ashfall of the 1912 Mt. Novarupta volcanic eruption (known as the Katmai eruption). Mr. and Mrs. Erskine resided in the magazin building until their deaths in the 1940s. Next to the Erskine’s magazin residence, the Sargent family built their house about 1910.

World War II brought tens of thousands of American military personnel to Kodiak Island and the city, and the expansion of the city that had proceeded at a modest pace since 1792 suddenly exploded in a frenzy of development. Residential, commercial, and agency buildings were set up in the study block. Tenants sporadically used the magazin for residential and/or commercial purposes into the 1960s, and the building soon fell into disrepair.

The 1964 Good Friday earthquake in south Alaska created a tsunami that leveled much of Kodiak, spawning what is locally known as the Eurban renewals period: much of the existing city was bulldozed to remove traces of prior unplanned development and to begin anew. The magazin and adjacent block, located on a low bluff in Kodiak, were not damaged by the tsunami. Nonetheless, existing structures on the study block were razed during “urban renewal,a leaving only the magazin standing. The rapidly deteriorating building found its salvation in the 1967 creation of a community museum there by the Kodiak Historical Society. Enclosing the area that once contained a microcosm of life in Kodiak, the current grass-covered Sargent Park was created in 1980, with only a modicum of hand grubbing to modestly level the ground surface.
Period illustrations, maps, and photographs from the 1790s into the 1950s describe a burgeoning and then-vibrant social and material landscape in the study block surrounding the magazin, as represented by the presence of and changes in numerous buildings, fences, and roads. This archival background, together with known artifact finds on the property, formed the basis for the excavation areas. Four locations were chosen for excavation on the museum and park properties. To the north of the magazin, two 1 x 1 m units were picked due to the suspected proximity to the annex collapse after the 1912 ashfall; it was hoped that these units would yield information concerning the building interior vs. exterior due to changes in construction and ashfall content. Two 1 x 1 m units were opened to the northwest of the magazin to see what might exist amidst the structures shown there in period graphics. West of the magazin, near the back door of the former Sargent house, two 1 x 1 m units were laid out to see if any remains could be found directly related to the Sargent tenure. Finally, two adjacent sets of two 1 x 1 m units were opened immediately south of the magazin, as gardening activities a couple years back had yielded a number of Russian-era materials there.

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archaeology research project from alaska

archaeology research project from alaska

Current research alaska

Current research alaska

June 22nd, 2011 at 5:02 am

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