Monday, September 6, 2010
A Whale Bone and Sod House
Last week when I was in Point Hope, I had the opportunity to go inside a whale bone and sod house in the old town. Point Hope used to be located at the very western tip of the spit, but due to severe storm erosion, the village was moved inland in 1975/76. People in northwest Alaska have been living in sod houses for thousands of years and before the village was moved in ‘75, a few people were still living in sod houses. Only one of these sod houses is still standing today.
This house was occupied by an elderly Inupiaq woman in the 1970’s. I’m not exactly sure how old it is, but I read somewhere on the internet that this house has been occupied since before white people arrived in Point Hope. It was probably continually fixed up to keep it habitable. In 1975 it even had electricity! Going in an old sod house like this was a very special experience for me. I’ve excavated sod houses in Kodiak, Dutch Harbor, Iceland, and on the Alaska Peninsula. I’ve also seen sod houses in the Kuril Islands in the Russian Far East and on the Kuskokwim River. The size and construction techniques all vary a little across these areas, but the general design in the same. In Kodiak and Iceland people used wood frames, in the Aleutians people used a combination of stone, wood, and whale bone, whereas in Point Hope where there was very little large wood available, people used almost entirely whale bone.
As sod houses are abandoned and begin to collapse, they usually cave in, often the building materials get re-used in newer structures, what’s left of wood and bone often decomposes, and the layers of sod blocks mush together. The result is that what archaeologists often find hundreds or thousands of years later doesn’t look a whole lot like the house I went in in Point Hope or Erik the Red’s reconstructed house in Iceland. What is special about the house in Point Hope is that it is in the middle of falling down. You can see in the photo of the inside, that a lot of dirt has fallen through the cracks in the walls and part of the ceiling is about to collapse. Seeing this helps me imagine what some of the sod houses I have excavated looked like before they completely collapsed.
I don’t know how long this whale bone house will still be standing, but if you are ever in Point Hope, it is definitely worth a peak!
A portion of a sod house excavated this summer on the Alaska Peninsula at the Penguq site (1500 years old).
The foundation of a sod house in Dutch Harbor (3000 years old).
A reconstruction of Erik the Red’s house in Iceland (Erik the Red lived about 1000 years ago).