Local Archaeologist makes new discoveries on Afognak Island

Museum archaeologist Patrick Saltonstall and helicopter pilot Keller Wattum documenting a petroglyph site on Afognak. (Photo courtesy of Patrick Saltonstall)

Mitch Borden/KMXT

A local researcher took to the air to do a survey on Afognak Island, but what was meant to be a routine assessment of known historical sites turned into a day full of surprises.


Patrick Saltonstall usually travels by kayak when he goes out to find and study archaeological sites around the Kodiak Archipelago. Paddling can be a pretty slow way to travel, so, recently, when Saltonstall got the chance to take to the air in a helicopter for a change — he took it.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been so ecstatic after a survey, and it was really quick! You know, it was like one day and we found all this stuff that usually takes weeks.”

Saltonstall is the curator of archaeology at Kodiak’s Alutiiq Museum, and the reason he’s excited is not just because he got to fly around Afognak Island, but because of all the new discoveries, he made on the trip. One of them being a special Alutiiq fish trap. These structures are constructed along shorelines to corral fish. It’s only the second of its kind to be found in the region and the first was only discovered last year.

“It’s another one of these traps, we found one last summer, where when the fish come in, get over these walls and then when the tide goes out there are trapped.”

The traps are estimated to be around 500 years old. Saltonstall says these types of devices can found all over Southeast Alaska and he suspects more and more will be found around Kodiak. The only reason Saltonstall says he was able to find the second fish trap was the high vantage point he got from flying in the helicopter.

“I’d actually been there on survey and had found a village there and hadn’t seen the fish trap. And, then when we’re in the air you look down and I was like ‘ oh my god, it’s so obvious.”

The fish trap wasn’t the only big find of the day. Tall rock spires inhabited by puffins also turned out, Saltonstall thinks, to be possible defensive sites where people, hundreds of years ago, would wait and watch for enemies.

Saltonstall: “Somebody had to climb up that at one point or another.”

Borden: “How high were they?”

Saltonstall: “They were pretty high. I don’t know, like 100 feet.”

It’s impressive to think about someone going out to these rock formations and climbing up so high says, Saltonstall.

“They must’ve had a rope ladder they built to get up and down and, probably, they were hoisting baskets of food up. It was kinda amazing.”

More research will have to be done on these new sites to learn more about them, but Saltonstall knows one thing for sure. There are a lot more discoveries to be made around Kodiak and he’d like to use helicopters more in the future to find them.

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