Museum of the North
Nenana River Gorge Site HEA-62 : Preliminary Report on Archaeological Investigations 1975The Nenana River Gorge Site (HEA-62) was discovered in June of 1974 while Dr. Thomas D. Hamilton and I were hiking in the Moody landslide area near Healy, Alaska. The site was partially destroyed by a cut that was made through a point of land near the southern end of the Nenana River Gorge during railroad construction. The great amount of cultural debris that was exposed by this cut and subsequent erosion led to our detection of fire cracked rocks, bone and artifacts on the surface near the erosional cut (Figs. 2 and 3). In the days following discovery of the site, additional surface material was collected and one 1 X 2 meter test pit was excavated to determine the site's approximate extent, cultural affinity, and stratigraphic position. From cultural material recovered on the surface and in the test excavation, it was assumed that the site was recent in time and probably an Athapaskan campsite of protohistoric age. This initial surface collection included obsidian and chert flakes, a stemmed projectile point, several pottery sherds, boulder spalls, Tci- Tho's, hammerstones, a coin, and large quantities of large mammal bone, including some specimens with saw cut marks. From the test excavation obsidian flakes, large mammal bones, and charcoal were found at a depth of approximately 50 to 60 centimeters below the present ground surface. During the winter of 1974-75 I decided to conduct an archaeological investigation of HEA-62 the following summer as a thesis project for my M.A. degree in Anthropology at the University of Alaska. This site was selected for several reasons. First among the reasons for selecting this site was the fact that it appeared to be an Athapaskan hunting campsite and very little specific information was known about these camps. Another important consideration was that the site was buried and with this protective cover, as well as an apparent spatial dimension to the site, it appeared possible that activity specific areas might be detected. Other reasons for selecting this site included the absence of knowledge concerning the late prehistory of this area, the rapid rate of erosion and destruction occuring at the site, and potential contributions to paleoenvironmental reconstructions in this area which could be gained from excavation of the site. Excavation was conducted at HEA-62 throughout the 1975 field season with support of a grant from the University of Alaska Museum's Geist Fund and the generous efforts of volunteer excavators. Mr. Eugene West was my field colleague throughout most of the field season and worked diligently and tirelessly while offering suggestions, comments and insights. Ms. Ruth Croxton was another person of immeasurable aid and contributed in excavation as well as handling logistic and supply functions necessary for successful fieldwork. Mr. Terry Dickey generously gave time, experience, and photographic assistance to the excavation at several times throughout the field season. Others who contributed unselfishly and eagerly include Don Arthur, Krisse Arthur, Russ Sackett, JoAnn Adams, George Smith, Denise Smith, Arturo Frizzera, Kathy Kirby, Terry Choy, Charles Utermohle, Sharon West, Bob Besse, Dirk_Hood, Roxanne Turner, Cindy Quisenberry, Dave Quisenberry, Janie Pearson, Ann Wien, and Ricki Marksheffel. The backfilling crew merits special consideration for this 3, thankless task. Thank Mary Croxton, Harvey Shields, Ruth Croxton, and Robert Thorson. Dr. Thomas D. Hamilton and Mr. Robert M. Thorson contributed geological insights and interpretation at the site. Robert Thorson spent additional time at the end of the field season continuing research in the area and further exploring the site geology. The Nenana River Gorge Site, which is located at Mile 353.2 on the Alaska Railroad or Mile 241 on the Fairbanks-Anchorage Highway, has been referenced with several different designations during the short time that it has been known. Initially, when the site was reported to the Alaska State Division of Parks in 1974, it was given the state inventory number HEA-13. During the winter of 1974-75 I sent information concerning the Nenana River Gorge Site to the Alaska State Division of Parks and at that time the site wa3 re-listed on the inventory as HEA-62. The site has also been listed on the inventory printout as the Nenana River Gorge and the Dry Creek Gorge. These problems have hopefully now been resolved and the Nenana River Gorge Site is now officially designated HEA-62 in the Alaska State Division of Parks Cultural Heritage Inventory. At the University of Alaska Museum the site has received designations for the years 1974 and 1975. The 1974 designation was UA-74-25 and the 1975 designation was UA-75-45. The use of multiple designations for an archaeological site within the State Division of Parks and the University of Alaska is complicated and confusing. Mr. E. James Dixon, Jr., Curator of Archeology for the University of Alaska Museum, is working on this problem and hopefully, in the near future, will have the matter resolved. The 1975 investigations at the Nenana River Gorge Site included excavation of a prehistoric Athapaskan component, excavation of a sporadic historic component, detection of two additional site localities, recovery of stratigraphic and geological information, survey and mapping of the site area, collection of palynological samples, collection and recording of present flora and fauna, and the collection of dendrochronological samples for climatological and dating correlations. This report is a tentative outline of these investigations and is necessarily bounded by incompleteness due to the present stage of analysis of the site material. At this time the faunal analysis is in progress, C14 dates are not yet available, and the descriptive information is being completed. This work is in progress and will be completed in the near future. The field season began on May 16 when we drove out of Fairbanks with our truckload of equipment and supplies. This year had a late spring, but the snow cover of the previous winter had completely melted at HEA-62 except for isolated patches. Our camp was established approximately 30 meters west of the site. We experienced several light snowfalls at this early time of the season. By the first week in June everything had greened out and summer was in full control. During the summer, a total of fifty-one days were spent in direct investigation of the site. The size of the excavation crew oscillated from one excavator alone, at times, to four or five excavators on rare days, with two excavators being the most frequent situation. Excavation was completed on forty-eight one-meter squares and these ranged in depth from 55 to 110 centimeters in the main excavation area. One 1 X 1.5 meter square was excavated to a depth of 5.25 meters. Although the main excavation was concentrated near the area of erosion resulting from the railroad cut (see site map), several other localities were discovered and tested. The main excavation area is designated Locality I. Locality II is on the ridge above the main site area and on the west side of the highway. Locality III is on the ridge and the east side of the highway. The 1975 field season was completed on September 1 when backfilling was completed in the main excavation area (Locality I) and our camp was disassembled. By the last week in August snow was falling daily above 3,000 feet on the surrounding mountains.