Life on an Alaskan lakeshore

Excavations at a site in Alaska have uncovered an ancestral Alutiiq house frozen in time by a fire 3,000 years ago, complete with rarely preserved woven grass mats on the floor.

The Nunallerpiaq site sits on the shore of Karluk Lake, on Kodiak Island in Alaska. It was discovered – and a sample radiocarbon dated – in 2009, but in 2023 a team from the Alutiiq Museum returned to investigate the site, supported and funded by Koniag Inc., who own the land on which the excavation took place.

Above & below: Excavations on the shore of Karluk Lake have uncovered a large house that burned down c.3,000 years ago, preserving rare examples of ancient Alutiiq grass weaving. Images: Patrick Saltonstall, courtesy of the Alutiiq Museum 

Patrick Saltonstall, Curator of Archaeology at the museum, who led the excavations, confesses that he expected to find just a tiny lakeside ‘fish camp’ house, occupied briefly in the autumn when salmon spawn in the nearby lake. What the team actually uncovered was substantially bigger. The excavations revealed a large, well-built oval sod house, 6x4m inside, with wooden planks that once lined the interior, and a thick sod roof. This discovery changes our understanding of how ancestral Alutiiq people were using the lake; pointing to a longer autumn occupation, and indicating that families may have invested significant time and energy in building large, complex houses at every stop on their seasonal round.

Unfortunately for this family, it appears that the house burned down after c.100 years of use (although it looks like everyone got out safely, and had time to take their stone lamps with them). As it burned, the house’s walls collapsed inwards and the fallen roof sealed a section of the floor, preserving the woven grass mats that covered the ground: long parallel strands of grass are secured with rows of twining, spaced about an inch apart to create an open weave, while small fragments of more complicated braiding may represent the finished edge of a mat. Remarkably, the construction technique and style of these objects, which are the oldest well-dated examples of Alutiiq weaving that are currently known, are remarkably similar to the only other grass artefacts found at an Alutiiq site on Kodiak, from a site 300-400 years old, demonstrating the cultural continuity present in Alutiiq weaving traditions.

The site has now been backfilled. The artefacts recovered – including the fragile grass weavings – have been carefully removed to the museum for conservation and further study.

Text: Amy Brunskill