UNALASKA, Alaska — Even after 20 years as an archeologist, Rick Knecht marvels at the prehistoric artifacts he finds in the Aleutians.
The stone blades, barbed harpoons and tiny charms he digs up date from before the pyramids of Egypt.
And as he brushes the dirt from these treasures and brings them into the light of day, Knecht is the first person to touch them in a very long time.
"It's awe-inspiring to pick up a tool that's 9,000 years old," Knecht said. "If a pharaoh had held that, it would have been 5,000 years old even then."
Knecht, 46, is director of the new Museum of the Aleutians, set to open Aug. 28. He and other archeologists have been piecing together the history of the earliest people who lived in this chain of islands that straddle the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea.
And as he talks about his work on a rainy summer afternoon, his spirits are buoyed by the discoveries made during the previous day's dig on nearby Hog Island.
The stone tools at the site indicate that people lived in the area 9,000 years ago, making it one of the oldest sites of human habitation in coastal North America. The only other site from that era is on Anangula Island, 120 miles to the west, Knecht said.
The discoveries have captured the imagination of those who live here today. And a remote Alaska community best known as the nation's largest commercial fishing port and the home of world-record halibut is taking a closer look at its rich history.
Community volunteers have spent hours assisting on archeological digs at Margaret Bay, in a commercial area of town, and at Summer Bay, just outside of town, and have helped to catalog the tens of thousands of artifacts found.
"The key is to get the public participating. It's the best way to preserve sites from being damaged," Knecht said.
The artifacts will go on display at the new $4-million museum, which will also feature exhibits on the Russian influence in the region and the huge military buildup in the islands during World War II.
The museum was constructed on the foundation of an old barracks. A sentry bunker, with a narrow opening to accommodate a gun, remains under one corner of the foundation.
Many items taken from the Aleutians years ago to museums around the country will be returned.
"One of the things that bothered many of the long-term residents is that so many of the things discovered here have been spread out over the country because we didn't have a facility," said Mayor Frank Kelty.
The museum is a cooperative venture by the city of Unalaska, the Ounalashka and Aleut Native corporations and the Qawalangin Tribal Council.
The new museum is just across Margaret Bay from an archeological site that contains relics estimated to be about 6,000 years old.
The dig sits on a small hill behind a supermarket and hotel, adjacent to a lot crowded with freezer vans. It seems like an unlikely location for a history lesson.
But it's not hard to see why people would have chosen to live on this protected cove, near the base of a mountain. And the ordinary objects of their everyday lives have yielded a treasure trove.
Within the foundations of an ancient house, crews have excavated stone scrapers and bowls, ivory needles, a hearth and stone oil lamps still blackened from the flames that gave light thousands of years ago. Archeologists think a large stone slab placed over a shallow ditch may have served as a low-tech refrigerator, keeping perishable items cool.
The Aleutian Islands are known for their fierce winds, frequent storms, fog, volcanoes and earthquakes. But these archeological discoveries indicate prehistoric people thrived on these islands, making use of the abundant marine life and taking shelter in dwellings built partially underground.
The prehistoric population in the Aleutians has been estimated at 15,000--three times the current population. Because there has been so little development in the Aleutians, there are believed to be hundreds of sites still intact.
"You had a large population that left a lot behind," Knecht said.
The new museum will allow what they left behind to stay close to home.
"Kids growing up here can see the artifacts of their heritage," Knecht said. "That's the glue that holds people together."