The Archaeology of an Historic Alutiiq Cod Fishing Camp

Many aspects of Alutiiq culture today reflect the Russian colonial influence on Kodiak (1784-1867). Little about that period was recorded from an Alutiiq perspective, however. Since 1998, Leisnoi, Inc. has graciously permitted the Alutiiq Museum and colleagues to conduct archaeological excavations at Cliff Point on the outer coast of Womens Bay. Our team’s work at a Russian period Alutiiq settlement, called Mikt’sqaq Angayuk (“Little Friend”), is providing new details about Alutiiq life nearly two centuries ago.

Mikt’sqaq Angayuk (KOD-014) held at least one Alutiiq-style semi-subterranean sod house (ciqlluaq) with a central gathering space and two siderooms. We found roof timbers in the well-preserved house, and even the remains of a wooden front door. The entrance was oriented toward the bay, which offered residents a spectacular view along with access to a variety of marine and near-shore foods. Many questions crowded our mind as we carefully dug down through layers of ash and clay. When was the house occupied? Who lived there, and Why? When we began to uncover ceramic artifacts and glass trade beads (Fig. 1), we knew the house dated to the historic era, and our careful examination of the artifacts in the lab is now pointing to an 1830’s occupation.

Molly Odell is a University of Washington anthropology graduate student who studied the well-preserved animal remains found in the site’s adjacent garbage dump, or midden. The results are fascinating: Cod, cod, and more cod! Most remains are of Pacific cod, along with some Walleye pollock and saffron cod. Today, Pacific cod around Cliff Point spawn in the spring, so we know the ciqlluaq was occupied in the spring season. Historical documents tell us that in the early 19th century, Russian officials sent Alutiiqs to year-round or seasonal camps to fish, hunt, and trap in order to supply Russians and Alutiiqs alike. These written records, paired with our archaeological findings, lead us to believe that Mikt’sqaq Angayuk’s residents were members of a small, seasonal work party whose primary task was catching cod for the Russian American Company.

Artifacts from the excavation paint an intimate portrait of life at this seasonal work camp. Holes carefully drilled in broken ceramics suggest a handy resident made a repair by lashing the fragments together with cord, in the same way that Alutiiqs mended wooden vessels in the past. And traditional knowledge of how to craft chipped stone tools was used to transform glass bottles into hide scrapers, perhaps for fox pelts. We discovered scores of lead bird shot scattered around the house’s central hearth – and fragments of a crucible for pouring molten lead onsite. Mikt’sqaq Angayuk occupants tended to their possessions in ways that reflect their expertise with technologies both traditional and new.

Perhaps most intriguing is the question of who exactly lived at the site. Ceramic fragments re-fit like a puzzle to reveal just a few household wares such as teacups and saucers. We uncovered a few metal spoons and table knives, and a broken chamber pot. The sum total at first evokes little more than a few humble mess kits issued to a handful of seasonal workers. Yet many of the pieces are fancier than we would expect if supplied by Russian company bosses. For example, we found more fine porcelain and other painted ceramics imported from China and Britain then plain Russian dishware (Fig. 2).

Were all the residents Alutiiq, or were they accompanied in these small quarters by a Russian supervisor? Another possibility is that one or more residents were Creoles – sons and daughters of mixed Alutiiq-Russian parentage who, by the 1830’s, composed a growing share of the local population. Russians assigned higher status to Creoles than to full-blooded Alutiiqs, and allowed them more freedom and luxuries. Could this explain the unusual mix of goods found at the site?

Although we may never know the individual identities of Mikt’sqaq Angayuk residents, our analysis is revealing details of their lives and filling gaps in the record of history. On behalf of the Alutiiq Museum and the Mikt’sqaq Angayuk research team, I would like to thank Leisnoi, Inc. for providing this unique learning opportunity.

Amy V. Margaris
Oberlin College Assistant Professor of Anthropology

For more artifact photos from Mikt’sqaq Angayuk, and to see the entire historic artifact catalog, go to: