Archaeology continues at Sterling Highway construction sites
The Kenaitze Indian Tribe continued its work looking for archaeological significance along the path of the Sterling Highway Bypass project this summer. Researchers have been looking for Dena’ina artifacts at the site of the major highway project since 2020.
Michael Bernard, the Cultural Resource Supervisor with the tribe, oversees the cultural workers who operate at the Cooper Landing-area archaeological sites. The four cultural observers are employed by the tribe, and work alongside the contracted archaeologists any time there’s construction or ground-disturbing activities going on.
“They’re observing, they’re monitoring, they’re recording data, and being a physical presence there in case anything surfaces that’s of particular value for us,” he said. “And they’re also available to halt the project if there’s any human remains that are surfaced.”
Bernard said because of historic Dena'ina belief systems about not leaving items behind, it’s not common to find prehistoric artifacts. During this construction and archaeology season, however, his team did uncover some things.
“But we were finding birch bark, and charcoal, some stone tools and animal bones, from time to time. Typically, you’re just gonna find the depressions in the ground where a house foundation was,” he said.
Bernard said it’s likely to find something every day, because the area is designated as a rich archeological district. Part of the enjoyment of his work has been discovering things in unexpected places. Uncovered artifacts are studied by the fieldwork archaeologists, then go to either the tribe or the regional native corporation.
Bernard said the greatest joy of his work is seeing the tribe grow its own archaeologists. A decade ago, he oversaw a camp for young Kenaitze members to learn about archaeology, studying the work of professionals and participating in surveying and excavation. Now, several of those kids are working on today’s site.
“The planning that we were hoping to accomplish back then for their potential careers is actually coming to fruition, which is super cool for me,” he said. “A lot of times, you don’t see your work when you’re teaching and instructing young people, until they end up getting a job or start working in the field you were training them in. And for myself, that’s super cool to see those young people now – I’m working with them on the project.”
Bernard said the archaeological project will carry on for several more years as the construction continues.