Piecing Together Unalaska's History: MOTA Director Dr. Virginia Hatfield Explores Summer Bay
If you head to Unalaska's Museum of the Aleutians Instagram page, you'll quickly notice a number of posts about local places, ranging from the iconic Mount Ballyhoo to often overlooked places, like the turnout on the S-curves, overlooking Unalaska Bay.
Hidden among many of the island's beaches, mountains, and sightseeing locales are clues or artifacts from thousands of years ago. For Museum Director Dr. Ginny Hatfield, those puzzle pieces are an exciting glimpse into how people have lived throughout history.
The layers of dirt in the Unalaska area are particularly interesting and constitute a dynamic puzzle, according to Hatfield. She said that the layers have remained intact more than other regions simply because there hasn't been as much disruption from things like plowing or livestock on the island. And that preservation, she said, can give clues to intriguing and detailed histories.
With the help of other professionals, like ecologists and geologists, Hatfield said she's able to look at layers of dirt and other artifacts from archaeological excavations to paint a bigger picture of how people lived thousands of years ago.
"We're looking at who was living there, and how they were doing. Were they resilient? Were they struggling? Were they living richly off the land — things like that," said Hatfield. "And [we can ask] what kind of sophisticated technologies were they using to make their living out in these islands?"
And as an archeologist, she said you can approach those questions from different angles and then ask even more questions.
"You can talk about how people lived and how they ate — what kind of houses they lived in," explained Hatfield. "And we can kind of reconstruct that from what remains in the ground."
One of the places Hatfield said she's been excavating and reconstructing is out at Summer Bay, through the community archeology program, which she started in 2017.
Over the past few years, at the Qawalangin Tribe's Culture Camp, Camp Qungaayux, volunteers and kids in the community have come out to the site to learn about excavating practices and about the artifacts they find.
"We talk about how we excavate and what they're finding and what they're seeing," said Hatfield. "And we let them do hands on experience with the trowels. And we have usually three or four professional archaeologists and our Education and Outreach Manager to help teach and guide the students in this experience with archaeology."
Hatfield said they've gotten good samples from the community site. But, she said that site in Summer Bay won't be around forever.
"[The] site's on a dune that's been hit really hard by these increasingly stormy seas and a shifting creek that has kind of cut into the dunes over there, which have eroded away a good portion of that site," said Hatfield. "And that site is going to go away. It's probably only going to be with us for a few more years before the ocean takes it back."
But, according to Hatfield, that corrosion makes for an especially dynamic dig due to the continual erosion, reformation, and wind and wave interaction that takes place there.
Hatfield said that it's dynamic and interesting because there are several "discreet pockets of occupation" that give clues to how people lived thousands of years ago.
"People were out there fishing and cooking fish so we see the evidence of them cooking it — little pockets of urchin and fishbones: waste," explained Hatfield. "You can imagine that they're putting them in baskets and dumping them in piles, and then those get buried up in the sand."
Hatfield said that the COVID-19 pandemic has made these community digs and things like community sorting events challenging. But, she said she looks forward to continuing the project out at Summer Bay in the future, and hopefully starting new excavations as that site deteriorates.
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