Whenever one of my crew says something like, "Oh wow, this is weird. Wait... What...? Bree, can you come take a look at this?", I know something cool is about to happen.
That's almost exactly what happened this summer on a rainy day at Quartz Lake. I was writing notes about our two 1 x 2 m targeted test excavations when Molly called me over to the screen to take a look at something "weird". As a very experienced field and lab archaeologist, I knew she must have found something either very bad, like a piece of historic trash in what we thought was an undisturbed pre-contact cultural context, or something really neat.
Here's what was in Molly's hand:
What is that little red-brown burnt Goldfish-looking blob?
It may be one of the only ochre crayons ever recovered in central Alaska. Ochre is a naturally occuring pigment that humans have used for millennia to decorate their skin and rock walls, prepare hides, and even ward off bugs. It's still used today as a jewelry polish.
In central Alaska, ochre is common at most pre-contact sites because it is so useful. We usually encounter it in little crumbly pieces and in reddish soil stains. A formal tool made out of ochre is very rare, though more common at coastal sites.
What does it mean? Well, this artifact in association with thousands of other pieces of stone and bone we recovered from Bachner this summer paint a picture of an animal processing site. Hide tanning, bone marrow extraction, fishing, hunting, and maybe ritual may have happened around the same time the ochre crayon was deposited.
Our plan is to return next summer and continue digging in the area around the ochre crayon, as well as look for use wear on it, to see if we can reconstruct the way the crayon was used. It may represent a late Holocene Dene artist. Talking to Dene elders about ochre pigment will also help to reconstruct the crayon's story.
Bree is an Alaskan Archaeologist and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wyoming.