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Glacier Expected to Flood Old Habitat : Archeologists Race Against Nature to Learn About Early Alaska Towns

December 13, 1987|SUE CROSS | Associated Press

YAKUTAT, Alaska — An 18th-Century fur trader with visions of founding a new hub for the growing Russian-American empire, called this place Glory of Russia.

Here, where wilderness surrounds a natural harbor, Grigorii Shelikov foresaw a shipyard, broad avenues and fine parks amid fertile farms. Imposing gates and a bust of the czar would be the final European touches on his island of civilization.

But the dreams of splendor and the town--a stockade surrounding a few crude cabins--fell to ruin less than 10 years after it was begun in 1796. Evidence of human habitation disappeared as spruce forest reclaimed the site, a few miles from the present-day fishing village of Yakutat.

Glory of Russia remains the stuff of dreams. Archeologists say the remnants of Shelikov's town could yield a treasure of knowledge about an area where many historical sites are threatened by natural forces and other ruins have been scrambled under later settlements.

Unlike most outposts of Alaska's Russian days, Glory of Russia and nearby Indian villages were not built over. They were abandoned untouched.

'Frozen in Time'

"It hasn't been damaged at all by later construction," said Ty Dilliplane, a Brown University doctoral student and former state historic preservation officer. "We can see here a point of time that's frozen for us."

It was Dilliplane who pinpointed the Glory of Russia site, long sought by other historians, about 10 years ago.

"If it was ever to be excavated, I would have a time capsule of what happened," Dilliplane said. "That's very valuable."

A few miles away, across the marshes of the Yakutat forelands, U.S. Forest Service archeologist Stan Davis is piecing together the history of similarly undisturbed sites.

Davis is excavating what is believed to have been Shallow Water Town, a former Tlingit Indian village eroded by the wandering Little Lost River.

The town and several other important Tlingit sites also are threatened indirectly by the Hubbard Glacier, more than 30 miles away. The advancing glacier is expected to dam Russell Fiord within a few years, and the lake that has already formed is expected to carve a new outlet to the sea across the plain where the Tlingits had their villages and burial grounds. A braid of channels five miles wide will sweep the artifacts out to sea or bury them in the shifting soil.

Working Ahead of Flood

"If these sites are all destroyed, we'll have enough information to know what went on here," Davis said.

A Russian kopek, a rusted scythe and other relics from European settlers provide proof of the trade ties between the Tlingits and Glory of Russia, which the Indians burned at the peak of hostilities.

Contact with Yakutat Tlingits and Eyaks, a tribe that was absorbed into the Tlingit culture, marked one of the Russians' first major encounters with hostile Indians, Davis says. A pattern of poor relations between Indians and Europeans was aggravated as the Russians expanded their empire from the Aleutian Islands to present-day California, he says.

Davis also hopes to learn about how the Indians lived before the Europeans came. The period is recalled in Tlingit folklore that is little understood by the archeologist.

He finds clues, such as chips of bone and pottery, buried in underground food caches.

"We think this was occupied before (European) contact, through early contact, until the early 1800s," Davis said. "If it were occupied later in the historic period, it would have more pottery, more trade goods. This is guesswork, right now.

No House Intact

"The other thing we don't have in Southeast Alaska is a good idea of house type (because) there have been no houses excavated.

"So we're somewhat breaking new ground. In the Southwest, you know what a Hopi house looks like. Even out in the Aleutians, you know what an Aleut house looked like."

At Shallow Water Town, Davis translates dark streaks on the sandy earth as the decayed corner posts of cooking shelters, or perhaps houses. A compressed band of earth along an excavated wall is guessed to be a floor level; a slab of rock once was a hearth.

Davis plans to spend the winter plotting clues, recreating a blueprint of Tlingit structures. He hopes that there will be enough time before the plain is flooded, perhaps a year or two, to excavate several houses.

Vicki Demmert of the local Indian corporation, Yak-Tat Kwaan Inc., says the burial sites and villages would have been left to decay if not for the encroaching flood.

It wasn't until the Hubbard Glacier temporarily formed the lake last year that the Forest Service set aside money for the project. By the end of September, $140,000 in federal funds had been spent to study the Yakutat sites.

Davis agrees that he would be working elsewhere if it weren't for the geological circumstances.

Archeologists Too Few

Alaska's few archeologists usually are run ragged checking the routes of new roads and construction projects. Having time to stage a major dig is a luxury, Davis said.

"They have maybe 500 archeologists working in the state of Arizona," he said. "In Alaska, we have maybe 30."

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