Aniakchak at AD 1650 – A Koniag Settlement

Historic distribution of Alaska natives (from Dumond 2005)

Historic distribution of southwest Alaskan native groups (from Dumond 2005)

Aniakchak is very near to the historic boundary between Unangan (Aleut) and Supiaq or Alutiiq (Pacific Eskimo) peoples. One of our research goals is to determine in what ways this boundary may have changed in the past. What we want to know is who lived in Aniakchak Bay? Were they more closely related to the people of the Aleutian Islands or the Kodiak Archipelago, or was their culture an amalgamation of regional traditions. In what ways did they interact with their neighbors to the east and west? Was there a sharp boundary between peoples orQuartz crystal from Koniag House (Bag 4301) was there a lot of trade and contact? Did these borderlands change throughout the occupation of the site, or did they remain relatively stable and permanent? To answer these questions we look at everything from houses and harpoons to carved ivory and even quartz crystals.

Quartz crystal from Koniag house


Our excavations indicate that the “Eskimo/Aleut” cultural boundary did shift over time. We are still piecing together the early part of the story, but by 300 years ago our site was definitely occupied by people from the east, people with a distinct material culture related to a Thule, or more likely a Koniag archaeological tradition (the ancestors of today’s Alutiiq people).

ANIA 4529 Green slate point

ANIA 4529 – Green slate endblade found in 2004

We had a glimpse of this Thule/Koniag occupation our first season of excavation when we found a ground slate harpoon endblade – a tool diagnostic of late prehistoric Eskimo culture. Our next season we excavated a large, “outdoor” hearth with associated slate tools, a copper bead, and activity areas belonging to the Thule/Koniag occupation. Two radiocarbon dates indicate this hearth was in use from approximately 250 to 350 years ago. The hearth and surrounding material remains were the first solid evidence of an actual Thule/Koniag occupation in this part of the Alaska Peninsula. For us a very exciting result for the 2005 field season.

This summer we found the clincher – a Thule/Koniag multi-room house. Writing that we “found” this house is a bit of a misstatement. We have known ofAniakchak Site Map from VanderHoek and Myron (2004). this “house” or at least this housepit (a surface depression that marks where a semi-subterranean sod house once stood) from the original site survey. Unable to clearly see through the dense vegetation, however, the survey archaeologists recorded two depressions, one circular and one somewhat rectangular in shape (Features 18 and 19 on their map).

Original site map from VanderHoek and Myron (2004)

I have Kelly and Parker clearing vegetationbeen suspicious of these features from my first visit to the site, but have always been too focused on other site areas to give them any serious attention. This year we finally cleared away the surrounding vegetation for a closer look.

Although difficult to see in photographs,Koniag House Field Description my field notes give some sense of what we found. Instead of two separate depressions, this area contained a complex feature with a relatively large main room off of which radiated five smaller rooms (and an entryway) like spokes on a wheel.

These multi-room houses are widespread throughout the Kodiak Archipelago and upper Alaska Peninsula beginning as early as AD 1100 and continuing in use up into the 1800s (see Bundy et al. 2005; Dumond 1998, 2004; Knecht and Jordan 1985; Saltonstall et al. 2002). Historically these houses were used by two or more families. They would share the central room for cooking and other daily activities. The side rooms they used as bedrooms, store rooms, and even for saunas.

House style is often an important ethnic marker. We believe this observation is especially true for the last 2000 years of southwest Alaskan history. All cultural groups living in the region built semi-subterranean pit houses, but the style of their houses differed substantially. Aniakchak’s multi-room house was built in the Koniag style. I believe it is our best evidence that a community of Alutiiq ancestors (archaeological Koniag) lived in Aniakchak Bay around 300 years ago.

National Park Service archaeologists report of four other multi-room house pits Distribution of multi-room houses in the Aniakchak region(one on the north side of Aniakchak Bay and three on two sites in Kujulik Bay just west of Aniakchak) found during their 1997-2000 surveys in the park (VanderHoek and Myron 2004). Three radiocarbon dates from these features range between 300 and 500 years old, suggesting these three houses also belong to the Thule/Koniag archaeological tradition. It is worth noting, however, that the NPS archaeologists found no ground slate endblades and only one slate knife diagnostic of a Thule/Koniag occupation during their four seasons of survey and testing in Aniakchak park. From their perspective, the last 500 years of prehistory in the park remained relatively obscure and unknown.

So, Aniakchak and apparently Kujulik Bays have the westernmost Thule/Koniag houses on the Alaska Peninsula. Were these scattered four houses built by people living on the very edge of the Alutiiq world? It seems likely given what we know about the archaeology of the Chignik region further west (Dumond 1992; Maschner 2004). On-the-other-hand, if I could walk over a Koniag multi-room house for two summers without recognizing it, perhaps we just need to take a closer look at the Chignik sites.

For now, we have a large collection of artifacts and faunal remains from our Aniakchak excavations waiting for analyses. I’m very curious to see what these analyses will tell us about this Koniag community and what life was like for them living on the borderlands.


Bundy, B. E., D. M. Vinson and D. E. Dumond (2005) Brooks River Cutbank: An Archeological Data Recovery Project in Katmai National Park. University of Oregon Anthropological Papers no. 64. Dept. of Anthropology, University of Oregon, Eugene.

Dumond, D. E. (1992) Archaeological Reconnaissance in the Chignik-Port Heiden Region of the Alaska Peninsula. In Contributions to the Anthropology of Southcentral and Southwestern Alaska. R.H. Jordan, F. de Leguna, and A.F. Steffian, ed., Anthropological Papers of the University of Alaska 24(1-2): 89-108: Fairbanks.

Dumond, D. E. (1998) The Archaeology of Migrations: Following the Fainter Footprints. Arctic Anthropology 35(2):59.

Dumond, D. E. (2003) Archaeology on the Alaska Peninsula: The Leader Creek Site and its Context. University of Oregon Anthropological Papers no. 60. Dept. of Anthropology and Museum of Natural History, University of Oregon, Eugene.

Dumond, D. E. (2005) A Naknek chronicle: Ten Thousand Years in a Land of Lakes and Rivers and Mountains of Fire. U.S. Dept. of the Interior, National Park Service, Katmai National Park and Preserve, Washington, DC.

Knecht, R. A., R. H. Jordan (1985) Nunakakhnak : An Historic Koniag Village in Karluk, Kodiak Island, Alaska. Arctic Anthropology 22(2):17-35

Maschner, H. D. G. (2004) Traditions Past and Present: Allen McCartney and the Izembek Phase of the Western Alaska Peninsula. Arctic Anthropology 41(2):98-111.

Saltonstall, Patrick G., Robert Kopperl, and Amy F. Steffian (2002) Smokehouses and Dwellings: Structures at an Interior Fish Camp, Kodiak Island Alaska. Paper presented at the 29th Annual Meeting of the Alaska Anthropological Association, Anchorage, AK

VanderHoek, Richard and Rachel Myron (2004) Cultural Remains from a Catastrophic Landscape: An Archeological Overview and Assessment of Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve. United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve.

6 thoughts on “Aniakchak at AD 1650 – A Koniag Settlement

  1. Patrick Saltonstall emailed me this comment about the Alutiiq Museum’s household archaeology research. What they have learned is so fascinating I thought it would be useful to post his comment here. (By the way, Patrick says he can’t leave comments on my blog. If anyone else is having trouble please send me an email at

    Here’s Patrick’s comment – “We’ve really nailed the evolution of the Alutiiq House in the last few years. Around 1500 years ago it was single room kachemak houses with storage pits scattered all over the village (like the Uyak site). Then you see single room kachemak houses with pits close by surrounding it (found a lot of these on survey and they date to around 1200 BP). Then you get small multiroom HP’s with roof sods and kachemak features – and still have some pits by each house (like the one we excavated this year at Olga Lake – also Horseshoe Cove on Uganik Island) – date to around 900 BP. Then they move on to the Settlement point style – no roof sods over the main room, and clean sleeping rooms for families with all the storage in the main room (600 BP) (the siderooms are basically single room houses attached to a common room). Later the multiroom houses get more formal, drop the cold trap tunnels to the siderooms, and you see siderooms used for storage. It’s a pretty clean story.

  2. (I’m pasting another comment from Patrick, since he is still unable to leave comments here.)

    Patrick writes — I loved your Koniag house, and I’ll add that the later houses at Settlement Point were full of quartz crystals while the earlierst house was not. They seem to be a Late Koniag diagnostic (which matches your dates). I read somewhere that quartz crystals were put inside of rattles but I can not remember the reference. The house map in your notes looks just like what I’ve been drawing over and over again on our surveys along the rivers at the south end of Kodiak.

    One thing I realized after reading your story is how important it is to do your survey work early before the grass and pushki grow tall enough to obscure the house depressions. Lately, we’ve been doing our surveys in late April and early May because we found that the vegetation was often already too tall by late May (this year we got a little burned by a late spring and the ground was still frozen which made tests pits darn near impossible to dig). In late april the housepits are very clearly defined and you can even see internal features like hearths, cold trap tunnels to siderooms and benches. Kachemak houses are less clearly defined and more difficult to map because they are almost always capped by thick roof sods (which look like mixed and mottled ashes).

    Two other points that I wanted to make. One we did find clear Koniag style houses on Chirikof – at at least 3 Konaig villages existed out there. And one dated to around 500 years ago. Another locality in the

    Finally – I hate the word ‘Thule’ for anything related to the Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak. I know I know – I’m big into the ‘in situ’ development for the Koniag on Kodiak, so perhaps I’m biased (aren’t we all). But one thing I am wondering – why don’t the Yupik speak ‘Thule’ or Inupiaq? Seems to me the Thule never got south of Norton Sound. I bet the Norton and Kachemak spoke an identical language closely related to Yupik and Alutiiq. Also even Don Dumond believes the ‘Koniag’ houseform developed first on Kodiak (he sees it being adopted on the Ak Peninsula as a sort of backwash thing). So really it is a Koniag houseform. Now Allen McCartney’s whale bone house from the Lower Ak Peninsula is a different thing entirely.

  3. Hey Patrick,

    Apparently quartz crystals are found with these houses on the Alaska Peninsula just like they are on Kodiak. My crew members call them “booty crystals” after I told them that the Aleut (?) young men used to give them to their girl friends. Supposedly they would kayak for hundreds of miles to bring back the most impressive crystals they could find. Of course I don’t remember my reference, and I’ve probably made most of this up. My students liked the story, though, and would yell “booty crystal” every time they found anything remotely quartz-like.

    Very interesting about the Koniag houses on Chirikof. I agree that Aniakchak and Chirikof were probably culturally very similar throughout most of prehistory. We’ll have to do some kind of comparative analysis at some point to really document this relationship.

    Regarding your thoughts on AK Peninsula Thule, I generally agree. I use the cumbersome “Thule/Koniag” appellation in this post because I’m withholding judgment, but I’m largely convinced that at least Aniakchak was a Koniag occupation (that is, ancestral Alutiiq). What to call Dumond’s “Bluff Phase” is something we could debate.

    Of greater importance is your point that the “Eskimo” language/origins question remains one of the biggest unanswered questions in archaeology. Obviously there is good evidence for at least part of the story coming from the Bering Straits region, just like there is for Kodiak and the upper Alaska Peninsula. Maybe where we really need to look is on the Chukchi Peninsula (as Owen Mason suggests). Maybe you and I should take next summer off from digging along the north Pacific and see what we can find in Siberia. I’m sure our families and employers wouldn’t mind.

  4. I love the name ‘booty stones’ for quartz crystals. That’s what I’ll call them from now on. I bet they are from the Alaska peninsula too. We rarely find perfect ones like the one you pictured on your blog. Most of the ones from Kodiak are broken fragments.

    Also the Koniag material down on Chirikof was very weird for us Kodiak based archaeologists. There was an inordinate number of basalt tools. As Don Clark put it, ‘you got to think what Kachemak and Koniag would look like if they used basalt instead of slate.’ A surprising number of slate tools and kodiak greenstone (meta tuff) tools too. The abundance of basalt made everything look a little ‘Aleutian’ to us Kodiak based archaeologists.

    Thinking about you ‘Lower Alaska Peninsula’ archaeologists looking for Kodiak style houses got me to wondering whether we’d recognize Aleutian style houses on Kodiak. I guess if I found a really long house depression with no obvious entrance tunnel I’d start to wonder. Or a house with stone walls (I’m envious of the Margret Bay and Amaknak Bridge site houses with walls of stone – certainly easier to excavate and photograph than houses with walls built of stacked sods like we find on Kodiak).

    Finally – Siberia would be awesome. Let’s go.

  5. “Booty crystals”, ha? You never told me about that one. Some American indian groups believe white quartz is the mirror to the soul. I wonder if there was a similar type belief in Aniakchak? Anyway, giving part of yourself makes for a more romantic story than some guy wanting to get some:)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.