Report of Archaeological Activities During the 1999 Expedition of the International Kuril Island Project

Prepared by

Tim Allen, Graduate Student, Department of Anthropology, University of Washington, Box 353100, Seattle, Washington 98195-3100

Ben Fitzhugh, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology and Associate Curator, Burke Museum, University of Washington, Box 353100, Seattle, Washington 98195-3100

8 October 1999


The members of the International Kuril Island Project (IKIP)have journeyed to the Kuril Archipelago in the Far East of Russia every year since 1994 to study the flora and fauna of this remote island chain. Each year this international group of scientists (Russian, Japanese, and American) has traveled through the island chain aboard the Russian research vessel Oparin, based in Vladivostok, and over the course of six field seasons they have sampled every significant island in the chain. During one of these field seasons, the IKIP biologists found what looked like a significant archaeological site on the island of Onekotan.

This discovery was brought to the attention of several University of Washington (UW) archaeologists in the fall of 1998. These archaeologists (Karl Hutterer, Don Grayson, Julie Stein, and Ben Fitzhugh) became interested in learning more about the archaeological history of the Kuril chain. A larger archaeologically focused expedition was then planned for the summer of 2000. The developing project will investigate the poorly known Kuril Islands for evidence to address issues of North Pacific Rim culture history, human migration into and out of Beringia, the development of maritime hunting and gathering, and human biogeographical dynamics in a remote and isolated string of islands.

The U.S. National science Foundation has subsequently awarded a substantial grant for archaeological research and has extended the IKIP biology program for one additional year to cover the 2000 expedition. This combination of funding extension and new award will make it possible to assemble an international team of archaeologists and biologists to explore the relationship between human prehistory/history in the Kurils and past and present biological and ecological relationships. One of the expectations for this research was a detailed examination of the Onekotan site, located at Nyemo Bay on the NW side of Onekotan Island.

In the summer of 1999, the IKIP team had an opportunity to take an archaeology graduate student from the University of Washington on the expedition to examine and map the Onekotan site and determine its potential for a more significant excavation in 2000. In the course of the field season, the graduate student, Tim Allen, was also able to perform a superficial archaeological survey on 14 of the islands, spanning the entire length of the chain, as well as on the southeast and southwest coasts of Kamchatka.

Allenís participation was made possible by the gracious assistance of Dr. Theodore W. Pietsch (UW professor and principal investigator of the IKIP Project). Funding for this preliminary reconnaissance was provided by the UW Office of Research, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the School of Fisheries.

The following report provides a foundation for planning the archaeological expedition scheduled for summer 2000.

Survey Methods

The archaeological survey consisted of foot survey and visual inspection of possible site locations in coastal or near coast areas, close to IKIP landing sites. Beach landings were determined by the research needs of the biologists. Allen examined topographic maps prior to each landing to assess the character of the shoreline and locate major drainages, lakes, and roads. Prior to disembarking from the ship, he could often also examine the shoreline and establish a tentative survey route. Once on shore, all nearby landforms and roads were examined for erosive faces and archaeological remains.

At each landing, the area that could be examined was limited by the amount of time that would be spent on the island. These time limits restricted the survey to beach, coastal plain, and first terrace environments. Unfortunately, some of the landing zones were not very appropriate for finding archaeological sites, although they did provide good information regarding island topography and vegetation.

Sites that were found during survey were documented, located on topographic maps of the islands, and photographed. Where surface features were present and when time allowed, quick maps were drawn using compass, tape measure, and measured paces. When artifacts or archaeological fauna were observed, such was noted on survey forms.

Sites were given unique numbers according to the system used by the biologists. This system includes a two-letter island designator, two digits for the year (99), the initials of the person who found the site (TMA), and a sequential number for the site (such as 7 for the 7th site investigated that season).

In the process of his survey work, Allen decided that it would be important to make small collections of artifacts when found on the surface or in natural erosion areas. This decision was reinforced by the observation that non-archaeologists were actively collecting artifacts for personal use. Allen thought it would be better to have a small representative sample of artifacts available for science, than to have these lost to nonscientific collections. This small collection is currently at the University of Washington awaiting return to the Sakhalin Museum. This collection is documented in the following portions of this report along with information on each site.

Preliminary Summary of Results: Onekotan

The Onekotan site was investigated over a two-day period, early in the 1999 season. During this time Allen made a surface map of the site and investigated the stratigraphy in the river erosion face. There he found only recent archaeological materials, dominated by lantern glass, coal, and other material of the last 100-200 years. Interestingly, these materials were eroding from sand at depths greater than 1 meter. It would appear that this site was recently buried by sand from a tsunami or other weather-related process.

The surface features of the Onekotan site include a number of very large circular constructions, made of rings of mounded earth. Unlike pit dwellings, the earth of the rings appears to have been taken from around the outside of the rings. The diameters of these ringed structures range from 9-13 meters. Two structures appear to be double rings.

In and near the ringed structures are a series of nearly square pit features, which are most definitely recent (within the last 50-100 years). It is unclear whether or not these square features were made at the same time as the circular rings.

On the bluffs above the Onekotan site are several similar looking features that are clearly products of World War II gun emplacements, and it seems very likely that some if not all of the lowland features are military remnants as well. This hypothesis is only cast into doubt by the strange arrangement of features in the valley, which would appear to have little military utility (at least as gun emplacements). Guns placed in the valley would have had poor visibility for targeting ships, although these may have been used against aircraft. The true function of the rings will not be known until test excavations can be made in these structures. One possibility is that the Onekotan site has two episodes of occupation, one predating the WW II activity. A visit in 2000 should help resolve this issue.

Preliminary Summary of Results: Kuril Survey

This survey revealed a total of 11 archaeological sites distributed throughout the archipelago and southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula. Most of these sites appear to date from the middle to late Holocene period.

Given the time constraints imposed on this preliminary survey, the environments in the northern and southern islands groups were the most supportive to the discovery of archaeological sites. This is reflected in the distribution of sites along the length of the Kuril Island chain. The survey identified 11 sites and two isolated artifact finds. Of these sites, two were in the northern islands (Onekotan and Shumshu), five were in the southern islands (Chirpoi, Iturup, and Kunashir), and four were on Kamchatka. One of the isolated finds was on the mainland, and one was on a central island (Simushir). The nature of the survey dictated that Allen search near the coast and in eroded landforms; therefore, it is not surprising that most of the recorded sites lie near the shore in dune environments where there are frequent eroded profiles. Any sites located further inland on the coastal plain or on the first terrace were always found in a modern road cut.

The sites generally had a moderate to large number of surface artifacts (ceramics and lithics), and normally did not have visible surface features (such as house depressions or pit features). The site on Chirpoi (CH-99-TMA-007), however, contains numerous semi-subterranean house pits that are visible on the surface. This site is documented in the archaeological literature (Shubin, 1994: 342). Faunal material was not abundant on the surface or erosion areas of most sites; however, three sites with midden deposits did display significant shell and sea mammal bone. These sites lie on Kamchatka (KM-99-TMA-003, KM-99-TMA-005) and on Shumshu (SU-99-TMA-006).

Preliminary Conclusions

Allen's survey provides useful information for the planning of the Kuril Island expedition that will take place in July and August 2000.

The Onekotan site at Nyemo Bay is still a mystery, but it seems less like a prehistoric village and more like a modern military installation. While there may be prehistoric deposits buried below the modern layers, this site seems less appropriate as a place for a major excavation in 2000. Instead we are thinking about the possibility of spending some time testing the Chirpoi site and then conducting a more systematic survey of the central and northern islands.

Indeed, Allen's survey of the other islands testifies to the potential of the Kuril Islands for significant archaeological history, and we are now confident that an all out archaeological survey of the Kurils will be productive. Not surprisingly, the small and isolated central islands yielded fewer sites than the larger islands closer to Japan and Kamchatka. This is predictable from a biogeographical perspective, but it does not mean that people did not inhabit the central islands at times in the past. Sites in the central islands can be expected to be fewer, smaller, and harder to find. Many of these sites will be buried and only identified through excavation or probing below the surface (methods not available to Allen in 1999).

Accurate dating of the sites documented in the previous section awaits the assistance of researchers with experience in the culture history of this region. At least one of the ceramic artifacts from the site observed on Iturup (IT-99-TMA-008) appears to be Jomon in character (artifact 99-KO-80). The presence of prismatic stone blades also suggests late Pleistocene or early to mid-Holocene occupation, but most artifacts are probably relatively late-Holocene in age. We will look to our experienced Russian and Japanese colleagues to help us refine our understanding of these collections and their significance.

Finally, this survey illustrates the importance of research into the geomorphology of the Kuril Island chain. Finding older sites will require knowledge about the dynamic history of volcanic activity, sea level changes, erosion, and other processes changing file archaeological landscape.

Reference Cited

Shubin, Valery O. 1994. Aleut in the Kuril Islands: 1820-1870, pp. 337-345, In: Anthropology of the North Pacific Rim, edited by William W. Fitzhugh and Valérie Chaussonnet, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C. and London.

Copyright © University of Washington Fish Collection.