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Gerstle River field school yields archeological bounty

Submitted by Todd Paris
Phone: 907-474-7939


Students at this summer's University of Alaska Fairbanks archaeological field school near the Gerstle River found themselves sifting through silt, searching for thousands of artifacts dating back to some of the continent's first inhabitants.

Assistant professor Ben Potter, who's been involved with the site since the mid '90s, said their discoveries are globally significant and rare in the subarctic.

"We have incredibly good preservation of organic materials that typically deteriorate in acidic soils of boreal forest settings," Potter said. "It's extremely well stratified. The soil [lies] down like a layer cake, which helps us identify specific occupations and the artifacts that are associated with each other."

Potter also said that the site is unusual in the number of artifacts unearthed.

"To this point I think we have around 10,000 to 12,000 fragments of stone tools and some of the tools themselves. We've probably got about 500 tools that we've found so far in our excavations," Potter said. "For all of these reasons, it's an extremely significant site."

For their work at the site, which consisted of digging eight hours a day, six days a week for five weeks, the seven students earned six academic credits. Lodging consisted of personal tents pitched on the hillside above the site with a view of the Alaska Range.

Thomas Allen, an undergraduate anthropology major from Fairbanks, was intrigued by what he was helping to find at the Gerstle River site.

"Stones and bones are cool, but what they can actually tell you about what people were doing here 10,000 years ago, that's really why I'm out here."

Potter said the Gerstle River site may have been a temporary hunting camp. He formed a pretty detailed hypothesis about who left the artifacts he and his students were finding.

"My interpretation is that it was an all-male hunting party, which I can infer because we have a very limited range of tools, said Potter. "If we had a family group, or a larger extended band with older people: men, women, children all together, we would expect to find a pretty wide diversity of tools, especially domestic items like scrapers and things like that, but we don't see that here."

For more information about the field school and the archaeology at the Gerstle River site, visit Potter's web page at www.uaf.edu/anthro/field_2008.html.