Tern Tail and Shark’s Tooth

Laura Nielsen for Frontier Scientists

Photo: WonderVisions: artifact from Alutiiq Museum's Karluk One collection -unfinished basket

The Karluk One archaeological site, situated on the shores of modern-day Kodiak Island, Alaska, was exceptionally well-preserved. The location of an ancient settlement where Alutiiq people once resided, the site was occupied from 1400AD to 1800AD and held an abundance of astounding artifacts.

Its location turned out to be unfortunate. Only a fraction of the large settlement had been excavated and studied when, in 1994, the Karluk River changed course and the Karluk One site began to erode away.

Before long the ancient settlement had been swept into the river. The river emptied into a lagoon; some of the Karluk One site artifacts which the river stole were not lost to the ocean but instead washed back up on the shores of the lagoon. At the time, taking a stroll along the beach might be all it took for Kodiak residents to make an archaeological find.

Normally at centuries-old archaeological sites in Alaska, finding woven objects is unheard of. Time steals away all but bone and stone. But Karluk One artifacts include thousands of wooden objects, as well as delicate baskets, items made from leather and fir, and birchbark containers. Conservator Ellen Carrlee notes that “Organics account for perhaps 70% of the more than 20,000 archaeological artifacts recovered,” at the Karluk site. The locations’ unique anaerobic qualities allowed for this excellent organic preservation. Water seeping through the soil from a nearby lake permitted little oxygen to permeate the soil and aid in decomposing fragile materials. And so the stunningly-preserved artifacts at Karluk One offer a more complete picture of prehistoric daily life.

Grass and Spruce-root baskets were an integral part of Alutiiq households. They held food and clothes, carried fish and clams and berries, could even be woven tightly enough to hold water. Baskets served as pots in which water was brought to boil by adding fire-heated rocks. Woven creations were used as foot and head coverings, drinking cups, and bassinets. They saw use as carrying containers, small creations were worn as jewelry, and all types were traded. They could be beautifully decorated by twining in dyed spruce root, grasses, ferns, yarn, or feathers. “This concern for beauty in everyday objects reflects a connection with the natural world and a reverence for the plants and animals that provided for people,” states the Alutiiq Museum’s website.

Frontier Scientists vodcast: ‘Karluk One Baskets’

Woven decorations represent another mystery uncovered. Baskets have been woven in the region we now call Alaska for thousands of years. All Native Alaskan peoples crafted baskets, from the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest to the arctic tundra. Weaving method and style varied between different tribes. Typically the basketry held in museums obtained from Southeast Alaska and the Prince William Sound and even Kodiak area were attributed to the Tlingit people. Woven creations were not attributed to the Alutiiq. There has been understandable confusion about the origins of historic baskets due to the frequent relocation of the Native people by Russian traders who once controlled the area and the similarities in style to the untrained eye. Neighboring cultures wove in similar ways, but with unique styles.

Photo: WonderVisions: basket fragment from Karluk One site with "Mouth Track of the Woodworm" design-element

Researcher Molly Lee (1981) noticed differences in design templates among Alaskan baskets in museums attributed to Tlingit creators. Tlingit basket makers used the shiny exterior of spruce roots and wove designs only on the top third of their baskets, using a variety of pattern decorations. Some of the spruce root baskets, though, were more matte in appearance and had decorations which might appear over nearly their entire visible exterior. These baskets were almost always decorated with motifs called “Tern Tail” together with “Shark’s Tooth”, or with “Mouth Track of the Woodworm”. They exhibited design elements not found in Tlingit baskets: dots, crosses, parallel and diagonal bars, Xs, and vertical chains. Lee concluded that these baskets were actually Alutiiq-made.

And indeed, Alutiiq people still weave basketry today; you can learn more about those weavers and their creations at Frontier scientists project: Alutiiq Weavers. They are artists creating beautiful baskets who are ensuring the continued survival of their ancestors’ cultural traditions.

The Karluk One collection, besides holding many examples of Alutiiq art and artifacts, offers further proof of Alutiiq weaving: it contains the raw materials for creating baskets, a basket that was begun but never finished, and completed baskets and basket fragments.

Photo: WonderVisions: Alutiiq Museum Registrar Marnie Leist with Karluk One artifact.

The Karluk One artifacts are now stored at the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository in Kodiak. The museum employees face no easy task. They must assure the artifacts survive, inventory them, and allow for access by other museums, researchers, and the public. These items which spent centuries underground in conditions ideal for organic preservation must now be stored in man-made buildings, with each artifact requiring special storage including micro-climates, treatment with preserving agents, and careful handling.

Registrar Marnie Leist comes up with creative ways to safeguard these treasures, while museum curator Patrick Saltonstall and executive director Sven Haakanson help researchers work with the collections, research comparative collections in the world’s museums, and lead additional archaeological studies. What all this hard work comes down to is the amassing and preservation of an amazing cultural record for Alutiiq people, the Kodiak community, and for all of us.

Right now, you can visit some of the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository’s Karluk One artifact picture records here: Karluk One images Album. Enjoy.

Photo: The Alutiiq Museum & Archaeological Repository: design-element on Alutiiq basket

project Alutiiq Weavers



Carrlee, Ellen. 2011. “ASM on the Road : On the Road in Kodiak.” Alaska State Museums, Bulletin #39. http://museumbulletin.wordpress.com/2011/04/20/alaska-state-museums-bulletin-39/#5

Lee, Molly 1981 “If Its Not a Tlingit Basket, Then What is it?”: Toward the Definition of an Alutiiq Twined Spruce Root Basket Type. Arcitc Anthropology 43(2):164-171.

The Alutiiq Museum & Archaeological Repository. ‘Caring for Karluk Collections’. http://alutiiqmuseum.org/latest-news-topmenu-102/12-caring-for-karluk-collections.html

The Alutiiq Museum & Archaeological Repository. ‘Grass Baskets of Kodiak Island’. http://alutiiqmuseum.org/exhibits/electronic-exhibits/277-grass-baskets-of-kodiak-island.html