Extreme archaeology in Polar Siberia: The Zhokhov Mesolithic project

Professor Bruce Bradley

I have returned from an amazing experience in the polar region of eastern Siberia, physically intact and in awe of the far north. I was invited by Vladimir Pitulko to participate in the excavation of the Zhokhov Mesolithic site, for the month of July. The site is being investigated by a team that includes my old friend and colleague Zhenya Giria. Funding for the research is provided by the Rock Foundation.

Work at Zhokhov has proceeded over several years and much of the logistics had been previously worked out. Never the less, just the process of getting there was quite an adventure. The first difficulty is that Zhokhov Island is way far east and north. It is part of the New Siberian Islands.

This remoteness, coupled with a cessation of icebreaker activity, meant that the only viable method of getting there was by helicopter. An advance team arrived in mid-June to reestablish thecamp and take in basic supplies. A group of us followed a couple weeks later with more supplies (primarily food and fuel). We all met in Moscow and took a charter flight to Tiksi with a stop in Xatanga. Tiksi is a small town on the northern Siberian coast just east of the mouth of the Lena River delta.

We arrived to a strong wind and light snowfall and on the way we had to stop on Bunge island for refuelling from a fuel dump.

The camp of tents and small prefab cubicles (moved from an abandoned Soviet Polar research station) was set up on a small rise at the base of an extinct volcano, about 1/4 mile from the beach. The site was about another 1/4 mile northeast of the camp. The camp included several gas-heated structures with bunk rooms and a central "office" area, a weatherport (made in Olathe, Colorado) for our kitchen and dining area, a couple food storage tents, two outhouses, and most importantly, a magnificent wood-heated banya. Overall, it was a very functional and comfortable camp.

We were at 76 degrees north latitude, significantly above the Arctic Circle, so we had daylight at all times. When the sun was shining, it never got below about 30 degrees above the horizon. It just revolved around in a ellipse in the sky. Of course, there was frequently cloud and fog cover. The temperature hovered between -3 and +3 Celsius, with a wind frequently reaching 25 to 30 mph. This made for chilly working conditions. We were all well outfitted with warm layered clothing as well as good waterproof boots, rain gear and insulated gloves. This was necessary not only because there was frequent precipitation (usually frozen mist) but also because we worked in melting ice, mud, and pools of water. Not to mention that all excavated deposits were passed through fine water screens.

On the rare occasions when the wind abated, we quickly became wet from sweating under all of the layers. Happily, we each had two complete sets of clothes so that one set could dry while we used the other. The bulk and weight of the clothes did make getting around a bit cumbersome.

The crew was incredible; probably the best I have ever worked with, and that is saying a lot. There were four Americans (including myself), a Mexican, and 10 Russians. All but two of us had worked there previously.

Excavation progress was greatly hampered by the small amount of melting that occurred during the non-digging hours. Even though the air temperature seldom got much above freezing, the 24 hours a day of solar radiation thawed the surface. Most 'nights' the surface would thaw between 3 and 5 centimetres deep (1 to 2 inches).

We would carefully excavate this sediment (usually sloppy mud) and then put it all through water screens to recover the small artifacts, bones, etc. Although a real pain in the backside, water screening was an absolute necessity. There was so much organic material in the mud, especially wood fragments and peat, that we had to float the screen contents away before we could see what was in the screen. We were often rewarded by spectacular finds of microblades, pieces of hide, and even bone needles.

The archaeology of the Zhokhov site is extremely fascinating and posed its own unique set of complications (other than logistical). The site is in/on permafrost and this condition has had much to do with the preservation of materials and mixing of the sediments. Information about the site has been published and a major publication is in the planning stages. I am not at liberty to describe or discuss the details of the site and artifacts, but will keep you posted as information becomes available.

Suffice it to say that Zhokhov represents a unique human habitation of significant age (circa 5000 years old) for such a high latitude. The verdict is out as to who these people were, who they might have been related to, and exactly what they were doing so far north at such an early date. What I can say is that the evidence points toward a focus on the hunting of reindeer and polar bears. Preservation of organic materials and artifacts is extraordinary with lots of wood, bone, antler, mammoth ivory, and even birch bark, hide garment fragments, baskets, wooden vessels, hair, sinew, and feathers preserved.

The flaked stone artifacts at Zhokhov exhibit a distinctive, and at this point in time, unique manufacture technology. This has been described in detail in an article published in Lithic Technology, Vol. 21, No. 1 co-authored by myself and Evgenij Giria. Our interpretations were based on materials recovered in testing in 1989 and 1990 and many more flaked stone artifacts have been recovered since then. We are in the process of reassessing our interpretations. Never the less, it seems that our initial reconstruction of the technology was more or less accurate. Since it has already been published I can say a few words about the technology.

Raw material consisted of small glacially deposited pebbles of chert/chalcedony. The main products were tiny (5mm wide) microblades that were snapped into small segments and set into grooves in the edges of bone, antler, and ivory points and knives to form sharp edges. The microbaldes were made with a technology that is so far unique. The points and knives are amazing, and because of excellent preservation, we have numerous examples where the stone insets are still in place.

There is so much to say about this experience but it can be summed up by repeating what Dan Odess told me- "It is the most interesting and hardest archaeology I have ever done".