This Summer I was fortunate enough to be offered a position with the National Park Service as an Intern with the Archaeology Crew at Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. I am currently studying Anthropology at the University of Tulsa, so this was an amazing opportunity that I did not want to pass up. However, getting to and from Alaska was going to be expensive and a bit of a dilemma. As I explored options, I thought about the tribe, and how they have helped to support myself and other students through the years.
After reaching out to them, I was able to get the financial aid that allowed me to officially accept the position and make plans. I was beyond excited because this was an internship that was going to let me explore professional careers, make connections, and build skills relevant to my chosen field. This internship was going to place me in the role of an Archaeology Field Tech, meaning that I would accompany the crew on their trips and excavations, as well as help them in the office, engage with the community, and complete lab work post excavation.
There were five large projects involved in this position: survey and excavations at the Savonoski Archaeological District, working a Culture Camp with Perryville residents, survey and excavations at Katmai Bay, condition assessments at Hammersly Lake, and Fishtival community programming.
The first of these trips was to the Savonoski River. These trips were into the backcountry, and meant that we were camping on our own, in the wilderness. This was a bit daunting at times, but a lot of fun, and really allowed for a connection to the land around us. We made it to Savonoski via boats, leaving from King Salmon, where we were stationed, then stopping in Brooks Camp, which is the other hub of Katmai. The Savonoski area was beautiful; it was surreal to be dropped off there with only three other people. I would learn later that all of Alaska is breathtaking, and I was always in the viewing range of at least one mountain. I was nervous about this trip because it was my first real archaeological expedition.
Over the course of my studies, I had become well versed in theory and participated in a mock excavation, but it is still quite different when compared to the real thing. Savonoski was an area that had been studied in the past, so we knew roughly where the sites were.
The whole area was once home to a village that had been covered by the Novarupta event of 1912. Consequently, the work that we were doing was in the post contact era (this means that the sites’ contexts were ones that came after European contact with Indigenous Alaskans). The first step to working here was to conduct surveys, both pedestrian and with equipment in order to better map out the sites. A big part of archaeology that is often overlooked is that it aims to be as non-invasive as possible, and using these surveys, we can narrow down or even eliminate excavation areas. In conducting these surveys, I was able to work with a magnetometer for the first time. This device was used to create a map of the magnetism of the ground it surveyed and revealed pockets of magnetic difference. These pockets were good points for our actual excavations. We worked on many sites over about nine days, and saw moose, ptarmigans, and the tracks of many wolves and bears.
Our excavations were fairly fruitful, with a lot of charcoal to test to get exact dates for the context, and some structural wood, a button, faunal remains, and metal. It was a good start to a great Summer.
The next project that I worked on was setting up and helping to work Culture Camp. This camp was designed for residents of Perryville, which is a descendant community of some of the old villages that were abandoned due to Novarupta. One of the things that I was most excited about with this internship was the opportunity to work with Indigenous communities. This work was the entire reason Culture Camp existed.
The archaeology that goes on in Katmai is almost always related to the ancestors of modern Indigenous villages that are located around the park. As such, the Archaeologists at Katmai have worked to have a really good and informed relationship with the councils of these various groups. They are a welcome part of the park’s work, and their input is valued, which was great to see. One of the projects that were set up to promote this prosperous relationship was Culture Camp, which would allow Perryville residents to come to the park and work with the Archaeology Crew. The idea was that they could learn more details about archaeology and specifically, the archaeology that was happening on their ancestral lands, and then have a chance to actually go see the sites and try their hand at archaeology.
This was a very fun and rewarding part of the internship. The Perryville residents were extremely sweet and interested in what we were doing, as well as being able to offer some really great insight and background knowledge to the projects that were going on. Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, they were not able to join us in the actual excavation, but we were able to see a bit of the park together and have a good week doing hands-on lessons on archaeological techniques and a trip out to Brooks Camp.
The third project of the Summer was the backcountry trip to Katmai Bay. This was the longest and craziest trip, at over two weeks long. As with everything else I had seen so far, Katmai Bay was amazing. The fact that I could stand in the ocean and be surrounded by mountains was quite amazing. This trip also gave me the opportunity to work with rangers that were not part of the Archaeology Crew. We had a Wilderness Interpretation Ranger and a Biologist with us on the first portion of this trip. One thing that I loved about the National Park Service was that everyone I met was highly driven, smart, and interesting. Everyone worked well together despite coming from different divisions, cultures, and hometowns, and having different projects to work on.
There was a sense of unity in the purpose of protecting and serving the land itself. The area at Katmai Bay that we were interested in was rather large and so we ended up setting up a base camp and a spike camp a fair distance apart. We would hike to the spike camp and stay a few days working around there before going back to the base camp for a crew change. The bay area was a braided river mouth which meant that hiking between camps required waders and was not the easiest of journeys, as sometimes the sand would just give way beneath us and we would sink. That being said, it was worth it. We were able to survey many sites, in two different areas, and run a fair number of digs. This trip was also full of wildlife; we saw bears, porcupines, otters, wolves, seals, bald eagles, beavers, and many, many bugs. That is something that people are not exaggerating when they discuss Alaska. There are a lot of mosquitos. Bug nets were a must for field work.
The surveys and excavations at Katmai Bay were fairly successful. They followed the same procedure as Savonoski, and yielded charcoal, wood, lithics and faunal remains. What we also witnessed, though, was one of the sites being overtaken by water. It was a really odd thing to revisit a unit after a couple of days and have it be partially underwater. It did impress upon me the importance of conservation and timeliness in archaeology, though.
The last trip that I took into the wilderness of Katmai was to Hammersly Lake for something a bit different than my past work. This was a shorter trip, with a smaller crew: just myself and one archaeologist. We were there not with the goal of excavating, but rather to check in on known sites that had not been seen in a while (17-21 years). We first located the sites using old field journals and GPS coordinates, then would remap them and conduct visual surveys of the sites, assessing how much their condition had changed and what kind of threats they were facing.
We also thoroughly photographed the sites to document them and tried to conduct an inventory of the artifacts as best we could, though there were too many lithics and debitage pieces to come up with a completely accurate tally. This was a really interesting trip for me because it showed me another important aspect of archaeology in the conservation work that we do. It is important to check in on sites, especially ones that are in high traffic areas or ones that may face elevated levels of natural degradation. The condition assessments that we completed will be used to better know how to treat the sites in the future and determine if it is necessary to collect any artifacts or conduct excavations. Until then, though, the artifacts’ home and the safest place for them is simply where they were found.
This was also the trip where I saw the most bears, which was fun and did not always feel real. One bear in particular was extremely curious about us and the sites we were working on and ended up following us around until we crossed the river to avoid him. That was a new one for me.
The final large project that I worked on as an NPS intern was Fishtival. Fishtival is an annual celebration in King Salmon and Naknek (the closest town, seventeen miles down the main road). Fishing is an extremely important part of day-to-day life and is the livelihood of a lot of the people who live in the area. As such, near the end of the fishing season every year, Fishtival happens. Fishtival is a series of celebrations and events throughout the community to bring people together and close out the season with a bang. The park uses this event as a way to connect with more of the community, so I helped the Cultural Resources Division create the programming for their contribution. We ran an activities table geared towards families and children at the Visitor’s Center, and then an informational table at the Fishtival Bazaar another day. We had activities like reconstructing a mug, drawing a soil profile, spinning a trivia wheel, playing a traditional Alutiiq game and more.
It was a really fun weekend, and gave me an opportunity to learn more about the people who live near the park. We got a good amount of engagement, and I was able to share a lot of my newfound knowledge about the park and what we had been doing. This, along with the lab work I was doing, rounded off my season with NPS. The lab work that I helped with consisted of cleaning artifacts, inventorying them, and identifying faunal remains. While not my favorite part of the archaeological process due to how repetitive lab work can be, it is a necessary one. Though lithics take forever to clean when you have fruitful excavations.
This internship with the National Park Service is one that will stick with me for the rest of my life. I met amazing people and had incredible experiences that led to me feeling more confident in myself as a person and more confident in what I have chosen to pursue in my life and academic career. I will also be carrying this work with me into the school year, as I will continue to work on identifying the faunal remains that were found and analyzing them for non-natural marks that would have implications for human interaction with fauna and subsistence patterns. Overall, I want to continue to learn and grow, hopefully with more opportunities like this one, where I can work on interesting sites and give back to local communities, ideally helping to share the story of Indigenous heritage wherever I am. I am also extremely grateful to the Quapaw Education Division for making this Summer possible for me. To say that it was formative would be an understatement. I look forward to seeing what comes next for myself and hope that my adventures can serve as a bit of inspiration to go and pursue your own opportunities.