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AmaTerra archaeologist returns from research at the Pingelap Atoll in the Pacific

Even though it's sliding farther and farther into the rear view mirror, how about one last little taste of summer? One staffer spent her summer conducting archaeological research on a southern Pacific island. Sounds nice...

Motoring past a Pingelapese canoe dock off Deke.

Dr. Katherine Seikel, AmaTerra’s laboratory manager and project archaeologist, took a two month sabbatical over the summer to participate in an archeological project on Pingelap Atoll in the Federated States of Micronesia. Pingelap Atoll is approximately 1.1 square miles in size and is comprised of three islets. Only the largest islet, Kahlap, has a permanent settlement and its current population is just under 200.

Map showing Pingelap Atoll.

The project was funded by a Wenner Gren Grant awarded to Dr. Maureece Levin of Stanford University. The research goal of the project is to examine subsistence and settlement strategies on Pingelap over time, while also constructing a chronology for the atoll. There has been little archaeological research conducted on Pingelap, and this project will significantly contribute to an understanding of prehistoric settlement and subsistence on the atoll. Data collected during the project will also be used to examine vegetation changes over time linked to human plant introductions and landscape modifications, and potential impacts from introduced animals and insects, and typhoons on the environment.

Walking road on Kahlap that has been in use for more than 50 years.

The majority of the work was conducted on Kahlap Islet, though preliminary surveys of Deke and Sukoru were conducted. In addition to localized surveys and shovel testing in areas of traditional and historic importance to the community, three excavations were undertaken to gather stratigraphic data and samples for archaeobotanical analysis. The first excavation was undertaken within the village near the islet’s high point, a second was conducted adjacent to the taro patch, and a third was completed in the agroforest south of the village. The excavation units were strategically placed to collect data from the widest range of use areas possible in the time available.

Katherine spent much of her time working on the excavation within the village, since it contained the deepest cultural deposits (at least 3 meters) of the three excavations. Villages on atolls are placed based on the amount of shelter from winds and storms a location provides, which means that modern villages tend to be built in the same place as early atoll settlements. This duration of habitation creates cultural deposits that form high points on the atolls. The high point excavation uncovered both historic and prehistoric deposits, which were composed primarily of faunal food remains (mostly fish bone and marine shell) with less dense concentrations of artifacts (e.g. medicine bottles, prehistoric beads, shell adze fragments). The most notable feature uncovered by the excavation was a concentrated deposit of prehistoric fish bone, which was approximately 40 centimeters thick. Unfortunately, the base of the cultural deposits was not reached due to time limits and the presence of large coral stones at a depth of three meters.

In the coming months, Katherine will be assisting Dr. Levin and her colleagues in the analysis and reporting of the materials collected over the summer, in addition to her regular duties at AmaTerra.

Beautiful sunset off Kahlap.

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