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Stone cold in Sitka

Stone cold in Sitka United States Forest Service
25 Apr
A devastating landslide near the city of Sitka in Alaska last September has unearthed evidence of early human occupation in the region – a prehistoric hammer or ‘handmaul’

Seven inches of rainfall in a 24-hour period triggered last year’s Sitka landslide, which brought down over 100 acres of mountainside, virtually destroyed the  Starrigavan valley and damaged watershed restoration projects in the area. Hydrologists Mart Becker and KK Prussian were looking for stone samples and carrying out geological mapping in the area affected when they discovered a strange stone sitting in the rubble.

‘I thought it was just a cool weathered rock and held it in my hand and started walking back down to KK,’ says Becker. ‘As I was walking, it suddenly hit me this thing was really comfortable and so I took a closer look at it.’

Becker had found a prehistoric hand tool, a T-shaped handmaul. The stone tool is common in Northwest Coast native cultures from the Columbia River to Yakutat and were used until 700–800 years ago, according to the Canadian Museum of History.

It would have been used for driving wedges made from softer material, such as wood, antler or sea mammal. ‘A tool of this type is akin to a prehistoric sledgehammer,’ says Jay Kinsman, a Forest Service archaeologist in the Sitka Ranger District.

‘There are much older signs of damage to the maul, likely from the time of original use. One of the ears – or tangs – was broken off this particular maul at some point in time,’ adds Kinsman.

alaska-handImage: United States Forest Service

The maul also has some minor damage from being churned among the soil rocks and trees in the landslide, according to Kinsman. ‘It is likely that the former owner of this maul was utilising cedar for one of the many resources derived from it on the slopes above Starrigavan creek,’ he says.

‘The owner would have likely cached the maul and wedges for future use rather than haul them back and forth with an already heavy load of planks,’ he adds.

This article was published in the May 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine

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