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Local archaeologists race against erosion at Talkeetna site

by Phillip Manning ~ July 11th, 2017

Joe and PJ Ferut of Vermilion, Ohio participated in a walk along the eroding banks of the Susitna River guided by Geoff Pfeiffer.  Photo by Katie Writer - KTNA

Joe and PJ Ferut of Vermilion, Ohio participated in a walk along the eroding banks of the Susitna River guided by Geoff Pfeiffer. Photo by Katie Writer – KTNA

The Walter Harper Talkeetna Ranger Station has been leading Monday tours at 11:00 am to an active archeological site along the Sustina River.

KTNA’s Katie Writer joined Archeologist Jonathan Durr and Ranger Geoff Pfeiffer to learn about the discoveries of this summer’s work.

Jonathan Durr has been pleased with their findings as he and other volunteers have steadily been discovering items that give hints about the early inhabitants of the Talkeetna area.

“The highlights of what we found, I like the prohibition bottle, the elixir, and a lot of good faunal stuff, animal bones, it gives us a good idea of the diet, of what they were eating. We found one of the earliest enamel plates of Talkeetna.”

They uncovered the remains of a building that is thought to have hosted potlatches more than a century ago. Numerous teeth indicate that a moose head was boiled in a commonly known Athabaskan ceremony that celebrates the life of those who have passed.

Interest in the site began with the discovery of a wooden casket more than 20 years ago.

“This whole adventure started in about 1995, a casket came out of the bluff down here. It was a rough homemade job and there was the remains of a young girl who still had a barrette in her hair.”

Jonathan Durr believes that the girl was a victim of a devastating flu epidemic in the early 1900’s.

“The ongoing themes of this site is the 1918-19 flu epidemic. That epidemic ran through Alaska like a brush fire. All of these little rural communities along the rivers…It just travelled up and decimated the area, it really wiped out the indigenous population of Talkeetna. That young girl probably was a flu victim.”

Other findings include the remains of a boat hull were uncovered and Jonathan is excited for the next phases’ discoveries, but knows that time is limited.

Jonathan Durr stands between the dig site and the eroding riverbank.  Photo:  Katie Writer - KTNA

Jonathan Durr stands between the dig site and the eroding riverbank. Photo: Katie Writer – KTNA

“We have a real problem… this just happened in the last 2 days, we are loosing this bank. Fortunately, a grant through the National Science Foundation is specifically for archeological sites that are in danger of being lost to erosion. Now this is a poster child. We are loosing it.”

With the recent high water on the Susitna River, a portion of the bank just 20 feet from the site fell into the river. They must work diligently this summer to excavate the site before the river swallows up the remaining artifacts.

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