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2 July 2005
Alaskan dig mystifies archaeologists

Last summer instructor Brian Wygal, from the University of Nevada, made two intriguing finds in the Trapper Creek area (Alaska, USA) while working with a Matanuska-Susitna Borough crew. The team discovered sharp, stone blades and other tools at twin sites sitting on knolls about five miles apart. One site overlooked Trapper Creek and the other site overlooked the Susitna River. They dated the sites at about 7,000 years old. The researchers think these early foragers cruised the area looking for game and refurbishing their stone tool kits before quickly moving on. Between 10,000 and about 7,000 years ago glacial ice sheets disappeared. Archaeologists say it's possible the people who left tools at each site were the first to venture into the area.
     Wygal was fascinated and came back again this summer, this time he brought 17 archaeology field-study students from all over the country. Wygal expected to learn more about the important discoveries near Trapper Creek. He now knows less than he did last year. "We didn't find what we expected to find," he said.
     The student-powered crew excavated a heavy, nearly foot-long club of a rock apparently chipped to sharpen its edges, perhaps used for woodworking or smashing large bones. This find was among hundreds of potential artifacts unearthed in about five weeks of work. The group wondered what kind of backpacker would lug such a heavy tool around? Who were these people? "They're still hunter-gatherers, they're still moving," Wygal said. The team had guessed that the people at the sites migrated from the Interior. But some tools found at the sites are not linked to early people known to frequent the area.
     Archaeological sites are scattered across the Valley. Pockets of the past are being exposed by new subdivisions, road widening or commercial development. Just two weeks ago, the borough staged a small archaeological salvage operation. A known site was to be leveled by a company shipping wood chips and other commodities at Point MacKenzie, so two borough archaeologists and the field-study students spent part of a day bagging small stone chips and charcoal to catalog the 1,200-year-old fish camp before it became a gravel storage area.
     A link exists between the early settlers of the area and modern Knik tribal members. The Dena'ina are thought to have been the first people who came into the Cook Inlet area from the north. The Dena'ina established trade routes to the east and the Interior with Athabascans over the next few millennia, said Jack Alcorn, executive director of the Knik Tribal Council. The Athabascans and Dena'ina interbred. The Knik are Dena'ina Athabascan Indians.
     When Alcorn was asked about Wygal's puzzle over the tools found at Trapper Creek and the tools he expected to find, he offered his own theory: Technology such as tools commonly traveled the trading routes even if people didn't. "It's a common misconception ... that when they run across these things, that means people had migrated," he said. "We're now discovering it's the technology that travels. They had established substantial trading routes. They were trading."
     The field study crew, working with Wygal and borough staff archaeologist Dan Stone, discovered about 600 stone chips that will go to Reno for analysis. Some will turn out to be rocks, others artifacts. The artifacts will spend a year in Nevada, then return to Alaska and Wygal will spend the next year analyzing the artifacts and trying to piece together the puzzles he discovered at the Trapper Creek dig.

Source: Anchorage Daily News (29 June 2005)

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