Human-Environmental Dynamics at Cape Krusenstern

Culture Camp students at Cape Krusenstern (Photo by Patrick Reed 2009).

Culture Camp students at Cape Krusenstern (Photo by Patrick Reed 2009).

Between 2007 and 2012, the University of Washington (UW) collaborated with the National Park Service (NPS) to undertake an interdisciplinary research project at Cape Krusenstern. Adam Freeburg and I led the archaeological research effort after participating in an NPS led field season at the site complex in 2006.  The focus of this work was the dynamic interactions between people and their environment over the 4,000+ years that people lived at Cape Krusenstern.  Cape Krusenstern is an ideal place to investigate these interactions because of the rich record of both past environments and past human occupation.  Archaeological research was focused on understanding human life ways – specifically material culture, subsistence, and settlement activities – as they relate to changes in the coastal environment and in regional patterns of climate change.  Jim Jordan (Antioch University-New England) carried out a concurrent geomorphological and paleoecological study at the site complex. Other project collaborators include Pat Anderson (UW) and Ben Fitzhugh (UW).


The beach ridges (Photo by Shelby Anderson)

The beach ridges (Photo by Shelby Anderson)

The Cape Krusenstern beach ridge complex is one of the most extensive in the Arctic, encapsulating over 4,000 years of human occupation and a record of past coastal environments (Giddings and Anderson 1986; Mason and Jordan 1993).  Beach ridges began forming at Krusenstern approximately 5,000 years ago when local sea level stabilized.  The ridges develop during decade- to century-long periods of fair weather and are eroded during periods of coastal storminess.  The ridges themselves are a record of past fluctuations in sea levels, wave energy and wave direction.  Throughout the formation process, active coastal beaches are impacted by erosion caused by coastal storms.  The approximately 9,000 acre complex contains over 70 distinct beach ridges, which together form a ‘horizontal stratigraphy’ where archeological remains date to progressively younger time periods as one moves from Krusenstern Lagoon to the active beach. Human occupation of the Cape spans numerous cultural traditions and changes in subsistence, settlement, and socio-economic organization that occurred throughout the region over the last 4,000+ years (see Giddings and Anderson 1986; Harritt 1994; Schaaf 1988).

Archaeological Objectives and Methods

Archaeological fieldwork was carried out in 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2010.  The focus of this work was survey, mapping, and testing of both previously recorded and new archaeological sites at Krusenstern.    Survey activities were designed to collect spatial information about archaeological sites needed for reconstructing past settlement patterns and for revising the local chronology.  This included the collection of archaeological materials for radiocarbon dating.  In addition, artifacts and animal remains were collected to aid in reconstructing past subsistence activities and technological change.  Additionally, site condition and location data important for NPS resource management and site protection efforts was gathered.

Testing (Photo by Shelby Anderson)

Testing (Photo by Shelby Anderson)

A new type of highly precise Global Positioning System (GPS) was used to record spatial data during survey.  This technology allowed field crews to work quickly while recording and mapping archaeological site information.  The UW team integrated new data with legacy archaeological data collected in the late 1950s and 60s by archeologists J.Louis Giddings, Douglas D. Anderson and local Inupiaq resident Almond Downey who, “was instrumental in helping…locate the Cape Krusenstern archeological sites” during those highly productive years of exploration (Giddings and Anderson 1986). Legacy data was combined with newly acquired archaeological and paleoecological data in a geographic information system (GIS) platform.  The result is a powerful map-based research and management tool for the beach ridge complex.

Research Outcomes

Biface (Photo by Shelby Anderson)

Biface (Photo by Shelby Anderson)

Over the course of four field seasons, the archaeological team has surveyed, mapped and tested approximately 1/3 of the 9,000 acre beach ridge complex.  Over 1,500 archaeological features were recorded, including both newly discovered and previously reported features.  Results indicate that the settlement record from the last 2000 years is more complex and more extensive than previously thought (Anderson and Freeburg in review a,b).  While some research activities are still on-going, the results of the NPS funded work is summarized in a technical report (Freeburg and Anderson 2012).  Other final project products include a portable curriculum kit designed in collaboration with the Kotzebue community (schools, agency partners, and individuals), a fact sheet for park visitors and other interested members of the public, and a public poster that was distributed throughout northwest Alaska.

Outreach Materials for the Public

Freeburg and Anderson IPY 2012 education poster

Anderson and Freeburg CAKR Project Fact Sheet

Anderson and Freeburg CAKR project outreach poster

Anderson et al. 2010 Cape Krusenstern Project Overview


Anderson, S.L. and Freeburg (in press) A High Resolution Chronology for the Cape Krusenstern site complex, Northwest Alaska. Arctic Anthropology, Vol. 50.

Anderson, S.L. A, Freeburg, and B. Fitzhugh (in press)  Cape Krusenstern.  In: Hunter-gatherers and Middle Range Societies, Springer Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology.  A. Prentiss, ed.

Freeburg, Adam, and Shelby L. Anderson (2012)  200 Generations on the Beach of their Time: Human-Environmental Dynamics at Cape Krusenstern.  Final Report: University of Washington.

Giddings, J. Louis  (1967)  Ancient Men of the Arctic. New York: Knopf.

Giddings, J. Louis, and Douglas D. Anderson (1986)  Beach Ridge Archeology of Cape Krusenstern: Eskimo and Pre-Eskimo Settlements Around Kotzebue Sound, Alaska. Volume 20. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service.

Mason, Owen K., and James W. Jordan  (1993)  Heightened North Pacific Storminess and Synchronous late Holocene Erosion of Northwest Alaska Beach Ridge Complexes. Quaternary Research 40(1):55-69.

Mason, Owen K., and Stefanie L. Ludwig (1990)  Resurrecting Beach Ridge Archaeology: Parallel Depositional Records from St.Lawrence Island and Cape Krusenstern. Geoarchaeology 5(4):349-373.

More Info

National Park Service Cape Krusenstern site

National Park Service Project page