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It's possible whalebone artifact could rewrite history of Aleuts

Archaeologists unearthing an ancient village from an Unalaska hillside believe they've found the remains of the oldest-known Aleut whalebone mask.

Much of the mask is missing -- it's mostly intact above where the cheekbones would sit -- but archaeologists are pretty sure it's about 3,000 years old, said Mike Yarborough, lead archaeologist at the dig.

Stained brown by soil, cracked in two at the left temple, the discovery made early this month by a member of Yarborough's team is about 2,000 years older than any known Aleut mask, he said.

It was created around the time Mayan civilization began, around the time Homer was producing the Iliad and Odyssey.

The Earth had suddenly cooled then, and ice surrounded the Aleutian Islands nearly year-round, said Rick Knecht, an archaeologist and University of Alaska Fairbanks professor.

People at the ancient site -- a sprawling village marked by unprecedented stone houses and delicate ivory carvings -- ate polar bears, ice seals that no longer visit the island, and a whale that's never been documented in North American waters, said Knecht. He led a dig at the village in 2003 but wasn't part of the mask discovery.

Perhaps six inches wide once, the mask could have been worn and broken at a funeral, Yarborough said. Cultural anthropologist Lydia Black, who died earlier this year, wrote that members of ancient Aleut burial parties wore and shattered tiny masks during funerals.

"It's speculation to say what happened 3,000 years ago, but it was broken when we found it," Yarborough said. "It very well could have been (a funeral mask)."

People occupied the village sometime between 2,400 and 3,400 years ago, but materials found near the mask indicate it's 3,000 years old, he said.

It's generally similar in appearance to its next oldest cousin, a 1,000-year-old mask found at Izembek Lagoon on the Alaska Peninsula, he said. That one, also a half mask, is on display at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center.

Denise Rankin, vice president of the tribal government in Unalaska and an employee with the Native corporation, said features such as the round head, almond-shaped eyes and slender nose remind her of people she sees today.

"They look just like an Aleut face," she said.

Knecht, e-mailed a picture of the mask, said the giant eyebrows evoke ancient images of faces pecked into granite boulders at Cape Alitak on Kodiak Island. The petroglyphs, made with hammer stones more than 500 miles east of Unalaska, were created more than 2,000 years ago, he said. "It's a great find," he said of the mask.

The ancient village where the mask came from has yielded several important discoveries, including the remains of dozens of homes, Knecht said. They had stone walls and sub-floor heating ducts to spread heat through the homes, he said.

Archaeologists have also found well-preserved human remains from ceremonial burials and elaborate jewelry such as an ivory hair pin with decorative faces carved on both sides.

The state has spent about $1.65 million on the excavation so it could replace a wobbly, wood-surfaced bridge built in 1979. A $28 million, 700-foot concrete bridge is scheduled to rise alongside it within two years, said Michael Hall, design project manager.

The state has budgeted $950,000 for the dig Yarborough started last year, Hall said. His effort touched off a controversy because he agreed to excavate with backhoes and truck the dirt to a fenced area, where Hall said it would later be sifted.

The heavy machinery was meant to speed the excavation so the bridge could be built more quickly, Hall said. The dig was originally supposed to take only a month last spring and cost $250,000, but the village has turned out to be much larger than anyone expected. The state extended the deadline to Aug. 15, Hall said.

Opponents, including some Aleut residents, grumbled that the excavator would smash clues to the past and shatter ancestors' bones as it punched through earth.

The tribal government, which called the old bridge unsafe and voted to support the quick excavation along with the local Native corporation, hailed the mask as one sign that archaeologists are working carefully.

They seem to be doing detail work with shovels and hand tools a lot more than they're using heavy equipment, said Rankin, with the tribal government.

"They're doing an excellent job," she said.

Archaeologists have trucked about 2,700 cubic yards of dirt to the fenced area and seeded it so grass will grow, Yarborough said. Some people have talked about letting students sift through the dirt as part of a class, he said. Discovered artifacts have gone to a lab for storage and later will be sent to the local museum. But the mask went directly to the museum to be placed in a climate-controlled area and watched by a curator.

The heavy equipment didn't break the mask -- there are no lighter colors indicating fresh cracks, he said.

"It was broken sometime in antiquity," he said.

Knecht, who opposed the backhoe excavation, said a more traditional dig with archaeologists sifting dirt through screens might have found the rest of the mask. Those pieces are likely buried in the big pile behind the fence, he said.

"I shudder to think what's been damaged or lost," he said. "I know they're being as careful as they can given the limitations of digging with heavy equipment. But inevitably there's a price to be paid in history and culture by taking that shortcut."

Find Alex deMarban online at or call 257-4310.


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