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Woven grass mat fragments, approximately 3,000 years old, extracted from an ancestral Kodiak Alutiiq dwelling near Karluk Lake.       Source: Alutiiq Museum

3,000-Year-Old Woven Artifacts Discovered at Ancestral Alutiiq Site


A significant discovery was made by archaeologists from the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository: fragments of woven grass artifacts, believed to be 3,000 years old. These pieces were unearthed in August, 2023, at an ancestral sod dwelling site near Karluk Lake on Kodiak Island. The discovery showcases the oldest known evidence of Kodiak Alutiiq/Sugpiaq weaving.

Patrick Saltonstall, the Alutiiq Museum's Curator of Archaeology, shed light on the find:

“Our team was studying an ancestral sod house next to Karluk Lake to explore the living habits of the Alutiiq people in Kodiak's interior. We found that a fire had caused the house to collapse. Interestingly, the wooden-lined walls of the house fell inward, quickly sealing and partially shielding the floor. This preserved charred weaving fragments, which suggest that grass mats once adorned the dwelling's floor. The remnants were mainly concentrated at the house's rear, likely a sleeping area."

Life and Crafts of the Kodiak Alutiiq People

The Kodiak Alutiiq, also known as Sugpiaq, are an indigenous people native to the Kodiak Archipelago, a group of islands off the southern coast of Alaska. For thousands of years, the Kodiak Alutiiq have thrived in this region, developing a rich maritime culture deeply connected to the sea and its abundant resources. Their subsistence lifestyle revolved around hunting, fishing, and gathering, with an emphasis on whaling and the harvesting of marine mammals like sea otters and seals.

Crafts and traditions play a significant role in Kodiak Alutiiq culture. Their skilled artisans are known for their intricate woodwork, especially in crafting kayaks and tools, and for their detailed weaving practices.

Seal decoy helmet, Alutiiq, Kodiak Island, before 1869. Exhibit from the Native American Collection, Peabody Museum. (CC0)

Seal decoy helmet, Alutiiq, Kodiak Island, before 1869. Exhibit from the Native American Collection, Peabody Museum. (CC0)

Ancient Artisan Practice of the Alutiiq Culture

Using materials like grass and spruce roots, the Alutiiq people crafted baskets, mats, and hats, each with specific patterns that told distinct stories or represented family lineages.

While weaving has always been an integral part of Alutiiq culture, archaeological evidence has been limited because organic materials degrade over time. The Alutiiq Museum does have baskets made of grass and spruce root in its collection, but these are only about 600 years old. Radiocarbon dating suggests the newly discovered remnants date back 3,000 years, making this a groundbreaking find.

Alutiiq dancer wearing artisanal cloths and hat during the biennial "Celebration" cultural event. (Public Domain)

April Laktonen Counceller, Executive Director of the museum, commented:

“Our ancestors probably began using plant fibers for crafting the moment they set foot on Kodiak around 7500 years ago. Plants, being widely available and easily processed, were perfect for crafting essential items. This discovery pushes our understanding of Alutiiq weaving history back by a whopping 2400 years.”

The weaving style observed in the fragments consisted of long, parallel grass strands (the warp) with perpendicular twining (the weft). This open weave pattern resonates with historical Alutiiq grass mat designs. Some intricate braided fragments might have been the mat's finished edge.

After the careful extraction, the delicate woven pieces are now safely housed at the Alutiiq Museum's laboratory in Kodiak. They will undergo preservation and documentation processes, facilitated by Koniag — the native corporation representing Kodiak Alutiiq people, which also sponsored the excavation. Koniag holds ownership of the excavation site and has always been a generous patron of regional archaeological endeavors.

Additionally, mask-making and dance have been vital components of their cultural and spiritual expressions. These masks, often made from wood, feathers, and paint, represent various spirits and beings from their beliefs and are traditionally used in ceremonial dances, narrating ancestral tales and connecting the living with the spiritual realm.

Koniag President, Shauna Hegna, commented, “Such findings underscore the creativity and enduring spirit of our Alutiiq ancestors. We're proud to collaborate with the Alutiiq Museum on such impactful projects.”

The Alutiiq Museum stands as a beacon for conserving and promoting the rich heritage of the Alutiiq, an indigenous Alaskan tribe. It operates with the guidance of Kodiak Alutiiq organizations and is sustained through donations, memberships, grants, and sales.

Top image: Woven grass mat fragments, approximately 3,000 years old, extracted from an ancestral Kodiak Alutiiq dwelling near Karluk Lake.       Source: Alutiiq Museum

By Gary Manners

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Gary is an editor and content manager for Ancient Origins. He has a BA in Politics and Philosophy from the University of York and a Diploma in Marketing from CIM. He has worked in education, the educational sector, social work... Read More

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