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Tales of danger in Archives or Was Dr. Jones really ahead of his time?

Nicole has been working on a grant project (Thanks IMLS & the Alaska State Library) to put a bunch of images from the Alan May diaries online.  Alan May was an amateur anthropologist who went along on three of Ales Hrdlicka’s Aleutian expeditions between 1936 and 1938.  Alan wrote near-daily entries in his diaries while on the expedition and later typed up the diaries and placed prints of the photographs he took with many of the pages.  The photographs we’re digitizing will be placed on the Alaska’s Digital Archives site and Nicole is doing the selection of which images to put online as well as the metadata/cataloging/indexing work so they’ll be findable once they’re up.

In the meantime I (Arlene) am doing some fill-in digitization for Nicole as I’ve discovered that some of our already scanned images had some problems.  It takes awhile to scan 1200-1800 ppi images (the originals are quite small and we want good-quality master scans) and so as I have pages of photos on the scanner, sometimes I have a few seconds to read the diary text on the facing page.  This is one story that I ran across last week and it got me to thinking about how we don’t always realize the dangers in some professions.  Sure, Indiana Jones made anthropology a nerve-wracking and suspense-filled pursuit, but how many of us really thought about real anthropologists having to worry about things like huge stone balls attacking them?  Or wild creatures, snakes or otherwise?  Well, May preceded Dr. Jones by a few years in his one close encounter with a large chunk of rock and though he may not have had to worry about snakes (no snakes in AK), other local fauna made an appearance occasionally.  We’ll let you decide if maybe the creators of Indiana Jones might have found some sort of inspiration in this 1937 diary entry.  And if nothing else, maybe it demonstrates some of the things that have changed in the practice of anthropology since 1937.

Thursday, August 19th.  Ship Rock. Ship Rock is situated in the centre of Umnak Pass on the Pacific side and we arrived here before noon this morning.  This is the island that we tried to reach when on the Morris but were unable to do so on account of the very strong current at that time.  We have heard of a mummy cave here on one or two occasions and one of the natives of Nikolski also mentioned it.

We were able to land without difficulty.  I thought I had spotted the cave from the launch and immediately set off towards it.  It was the cave all right, under a massive cliff.  Some mummies lay exposed to view and others I could see behind a sort of sloping fence made of drift wood and whale scapulae, placed leaning against the face of the rock.  The place had never been touched since the last natives buried their own there.  The sea-parrots, of which there were millions on the island had burrowed all through the cave and disturbed things to a certain extent.

There was only room for the four of us to work there and the other boys (note: Alan May was about 42 at the time) were sent off to find some more caves.  In digging I once caught hold of something warm and alive and then felt a bite on my finger.  And was I scared? It was just a mother sea-parrot in her burrow with two fluffy young ones.  They refused to leave the nest and had to be taken away.  Many others were dug up in the course of the excavating.  In all we found about 35 skulls and partial skeletons and about a dozen mummies, but only about half of the latter were in good condition. Naturally many specimens were found. Among them was an old type painted wooden hat, such as were worn by the old time Aleuts.  This was the first one we have ever found. Kantags, wooden bowls, shields, ivory daggers and stone points as well as bone implements were the most numerous pieces found. A few carved wooden pieces and a broken throwing stick also showed up. I found a piece of wooden body armor, but sad to relate, it was not complete. It was composed of small round rods of the same size, held together with sinew cords. Dall has reported on the finding of a complete piece of wooden armor which was at that time, 1878, “the only piece of this aboriginal armor in existence.”

All of the skulls we found were dolichocephelic and I presume that the mummies were of that type also, but of course we did not unwrap them.

There were many huge rocks which had apparently fallen from above.  I was working under one which stood on end, measuring 10 by 7 by 4 feet.  I had mentioned to the Doctor (Ales Hrdlicka) a couple of times that I hoped it would not fall on me.  The second time he came over and looked at it and was positively emphatic that this would be impossible, for it was too big to move.  I really gave it but very little thought.  Then, for no reason at all it commenced to fall. Something warned me, maybe I heard it, but I gave one mighty jump and got into the clear.  It broke into three pieces and fell with a sickening thud just where I had been a moment before.  The smallest piece caught my foot, and though it hurt for a while, thank Goodness no damage was done. Luck was with me this time and I was surely favored by the Gods for the rock must have weighed many tons. If I had not jumped when I did I should have been flatter than a pancake.  I really felt more sorry for the Doctor than I did for myself, for he was even more scared than I. The rest of the afternoon everyone had the jitters. Each time a little pebble rolled we all looked for a good safe place to jump. Today my shovel remains under this huge rock–it was a good shovel, I used it all last year and this one too.

One Comment

  1. When one disturbs graves, nothing like this should come as a surprise… Some would say the same about those who explore archives. (Not me, however.)

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