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Archaeology From Reel to Reel - A Special Report
Photograph of hat and bullwhip
You Could Warn Them - If Only You Spoke Hovitos! - Raiders of the Lost Ark
Archaelogists and Aleutians residents work jointly on an excavation in Alaska
Modern Archaeologists Don't "Go it Alone" and They Respect Native Knowledge
Archaelogists and Aleutian residents work jointly on an excavation in Alaska.

Credit: Photo by Virginia Hatfield for the Central Aleutians Archaeological and Paleobiological Project

Even within his fictional world, Indiana Jones is very much a man of his time, that time being primarily the 1930s.

He is the lone archaeologist in the fedora. Even the advertising campaign for the second movie, "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," played on this theme, announcing that "The man in the hat is back..."

In keeping with his creators' memories of the adventure serials of their childhood, to which the films pay homage, and the public fascination of the early 20th century with archaeology in the Middle East, Jones spends his on-screen time in the Earth's temperate regions.

And, finally, as was the case in the real world of archaeology at the time, native peoples, if they appear at all, primarily serve as blowgun-wielding villains carrying out the designs of the major villains or the high priests of evil cults, carrying out…well, evil designs of their own.

Working archaeologists today seldom take issue with the Indiana Jones adventures for depicting a world that no longer exists—and, in some ways, never did—to serve the cause of storytelling, even if they do regret the historical record of the discipline's often-harsh treatment of people who were once referred to dismissively as "the natives."

Working archaeologists today seldom take issue with the Indiana Jones adventures for depicting a world that no longer exists—and, in some ways, never did—to serve the cause of storytelling, even if they do regret the historical record of the discipline’s often-harsh treatment of people who were once referred to dismissively as "the natives."

But they are also quick to point out that archaeology, as practiced today, is the antithesis of what movie-goers might expect.

"The days of early curio hunters, like Indiana Jones, are over," says Dixie West, a zooarchaeologist who studies animal bones from archaeological sites and animals' adaptations to the chilling cold of the Arctic. "The 19th century researchers in the Aleutians dug sites in order to collect human skeletons and the most impressive artifacts for their museums. A large share of information—found in soils, stone fragments, animal bones and shell—were left behind. This type of collecting provided only a partial picture of the prehistoric world."

Using modern techniques, West and her colleagues working in the Aleutian Island chain "are able to answer questions about the environment and cultural behavior that the earliest researchers could not have envisioned possible."

West and her colleagues are both geographically and philosophically poles apart from the world of Indiana Jones, even if she shares the same swashbuckling sense of humor that characterizes the films.

"I have a saying about Aleutian science," West jokes. "'The Aleutians: where men are men and so are the women'."

She adds that to survive, let alone carry out meaningful scientific work in the cold, the sudden storms and the isolation of islands in the Bering Sea west of Alaska, "whether you are a man or a woman out there, you have to have mettle. Many Aleutian researchers are women, and we are very respected in our field."

Adds West's colleague Elizabeth G. Wilmerding "when I go into the field in Alaska, I accept that it is an adventure and that anything could happen. Now that I have kids I have a few more anxieties, but when I was younger I didn't think twice and I loved every minute. I still love going out to dig in the middle of nowhere, I just think about how I'm going to get home in one piece more."

In contrast to Jones, West and her colleagues in the Central Aleutians Archaeological and Paleobiological Project, work collaboratively and across disciplines; they work in a part of the world few people will ever see; and they work with native peoples—in their case, Aleuts—toward shared goals through cooperation with local political entities such as the Aleut Corporation, and through education and outreach efforts such as the Adak Discovery Community, which works with and involves the population of Adak Island in archaeology.

"When I began working in the Aleutians, I visited with the Aleut people," says West, an adjunct research associate in archaeology at the University of Kansas. "The Aleuts asked me what I was going to be doing "out there." I asked them what they wanted me to do. They responded, 'We want you to tell us about our history.' In my eyes, that history is an important chapter in the volume on humankind. The Aleuts also understand that their history is relevant for issues that we face today."

The Adak Discovery Community also allows scientists to interact with and learn from the people whose ancestors they are studying, whether through lectures or active involvement of K-12 students in excavations.

"In my mind, the Discovery Community concept is one of the most outstanding parts of the Central Aleutians Project," West says. "Through the Discovery Community, the local village of Adak was invited to participate in the science that was occurring around their small, remote village. While researchers discussed their scientific methodology, locals were happy to provide information from an 'on the ground' point of view."

That local knowledge also adds to the information that scientists glean from digging up artifacts.

"One week we explained that prior to Russian contact (with Aleuts), Aleut houses (barabaras) possessed doorways in the roof. Esther, a local who grew up in the Shumagins, abruptly pointed out, 'That's a good way to watch the kids so they don't get out and get hurt!'," West said. "It's that type of knowledge that gives you pause: why didn't we think of that?"

The Central Aleutians project is one of a portfolio of investigations supported by NSF's Office of Polar Programs as part of its Arctic Social Sciences program.

The broad focus of NSF-funded archaeology in the circumpolar Arctic, notes Anna Kerttula de Echave, the program officer for Arctic Social Sciences, is on climate and other environmental changes such as tsunamis, flood and volcanoes—past and present—and how populations have adapted to them; on the basic question of how the Arctic came to be peopled through migrations; and on how all of these factors interact to shape the human dimensions of today's Arctic.

Kerttula de Echave notes that the work is particularly significant during the 2007-2008 International Polar Year (IPY), a concerted effort of international scientific deployments to the polar regions for which NSF is the U.S. lead agency, because American archaeology can trace its roots to work done in Barrow, Alaska during the first IPY in the late 1800's.

Specifically, the Central Aleutians project is an international partnership of interdisciplinary archaeological, paleobiologcal and paleoenvironmental research initiative.

The Central Aleutians team gathers evidence from a variety of sources to answer a double-edged sword of a basic question: how human cultures and behavior have been shaped by climate, biological and geological changes and how human cultures have used and shaped their environments.

This kind of work could never be done effectively by one researcher working in one sub-discipline of archaeology, West notes.

"The scientific enterprise today is very specialized; the days of the 'Renaissance Man' are over," West notes. "No one person can hope to have the expertise or time to answer all questions that the scientific data has to offer. I have been lucky enough to assemble an international collaborative team to look not only at the human aspects of the Central Aleutians region, but also to determine how natural phenomena—earthquakes, glaciers, sea level changes and climatic change—have influenced human behavior and the resource base upon which humans depend. No one discipline could address all of those questions."

The underlying premise of their project is that if they can understand how ancient Aleuts, who first came to Adak Island 6,000 years ago, adapted to such environmental disruptions, then perhaps they can find clues to strategies for coping with the broad range of contemporary environmental changes facing the residents of the Arctic, such as warming temperatures, decline in sea-mammal and fish populations and the economic upheaval they cause, and resultant economic impacts.

West cited one practical example of the kinds of issues that the team is examining—a volcanic eruption that occurred 6,000 years ago on Adak island—in a recent Web posting.

Adak Island, she noted, "is covered with a series of volcanic ash deposits, and these deposits are also found in the ancient hunter-gatherer sites. Archaeological evidence suggests that prehistoric Aleuts were well adapted to this volcanic activity which had created the islands upon which they lived. Archaeologists have recognized prehistoric settlement floors covered with volcanic ash and new floors immediately located above the ash. Although volcanic eruptions must have created some alarm for inhabitants of Adak, these hardy people apparently were not swayed to move away from village sites when volcanoes erupted."

This specific incident, she noted, was just one of many possible similar events and the responses of the Aleuts would likely have varied. Some eruptions were large enough to force the Aleuts to move, depending upon the size of the explosion, the distance from the explosion to the Aleut villages and how the event may have affected food supplies in the ocean.

While the effects of a catastrophic volcanic eruption thousands of years ago may seem irrelevant today—and possibly less worthy of archaeological research than, say, a golden idol in a lost temple—nothing could be further for the truth, West asserts.

"When we learn about human culture 6,000 years ago in the Aleutian islands, we discover not only the incredible adaptability of the human body, but also the endurance of the human spirit," she says. "Faced with the dangers of volcanoes, earthquakes, Bering Sea storms and fluctuating natural resources, Aleuts had options. If the prey animals disappeared or the local volcano blew, the Aleut community could simply pick up camp and move to another island where resources were more abundant, or where environmental perturbations had not reached. "

But today, she adds, "we live in a world of climatic change where resources—whether they be oil, rain forests or polar bears—are disappearing. The planet is much smaller now than it was 6,000 short years ago, and we no longer have the option to move. By learning about the adaptability of this past culture, we can begin to strive to understand—and to be as in tune with—our present-day environment as the Aleuts were with theirs.

While West and the majority of her colleagues in the field represent a break from the "anything goes" attitude to archaeology that typifies Hollywood blockbusters, many of them, including West, embrace the spirit of adventure they represent.

She got into archaeology by a round-about route, while teaching English at Kansas State University.

"I didn't want to spend the rest of my life grading English papers," she recalls. "I heard a professor, in the classroom next to mine, speaking about Neanderthals. That sounded more interesting than dangling participles. So, when I'd finished teaching my English composition class, I would sit in the hall and listen to the lectures in the room next door."

That led to studying anthropology, which in turn led to a field expedition to Syria, to exhume and study human burials.

"But as the animal bones came out of the excavation areas, I thought they looked very interesting," she says. "So I informed my professor I wanted to study animal bones. He then told me that I would no longer be a physical anthropologist; I would be a zooarchaeologist."

The final step to becoming an Arctic zooarchaeologist came while she was working on her dissertation about people who hunted mammoth, reindeer and horses roughly 18,000 years ago in Central Europe. Her adviser suggested it would be beneficial for her to study in the Aleutians to "experience a modern Arctic environment."

And so off she went.

"It was cold; it constantly rained or was foggy; I was seasick; we were camping out! For one month straight I shivered. On the way back to Adak Island from Buldir, an island at the western end of the Aleutian chain, the research ship was caught in one of those horrible Bering Sea gales," she said. "With a bent rudder, we were stuck in Amchitka Pass for a day and a half. Most of us hadn't kept anything down since we had left Buldir. We finally limped into the harbor on Adak."

She immediately boarded a plane to Poland, where she met up with her professor, who was continuing the excavation of a mammoth bone house.

"She asked me, 'How was it?' I responded, 'It was terrific. I'm going to go back'."

After completing her doctorate, West never worked in Europe again.
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