Ancient speartip leads to recognition for Round Island

Apr 28, 2017

The 2004 discovery of a small spear-tip dating back 6,000 years helped lead to National Historic Landmark designation at the iconic island near Togiak.

Looking north from Round Island, 2008.
Credit Jeanne Schaaf

Round Island is one of the craggy coastal islands that make up the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary near Togiak. In 2004, a small spear-tip found on the island was tested and found to be over 6,000 years old.

Prior to this discovery, it was thought that human habitation on the islands dated back only 2,500 years. The available evidence showed that hunters were drawn there by the summer haulout of walrus, but also for the seals, sea lions, seabirds, and saltwater fish available to harvest.

Jeanne Schaaf, now retired, was the chief of cultural resources at Lake Clark National Park in 2004. At that time, the U.S. National Park Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game were working together to identify and protect cultural resources in the state. During a trip to Round Island as part of that collaboration, Schaaf uncovered the very old spear tip, which was a "significant" find from the excavations.

“Up until that time we knew that villages started to appear 2,500 years ago on that island,” she said. “We had no idea that people were there before that.”

This significant finding led Schaaf to co-author a proposal for the sanctuary to be declared a National Historic Landmark (NHL), a proposal that was approved in January of this year. The sanctuary had already been declared a National Natural Landmark (NNL) in the late 1960s, recognizing the unique biodiversity of the islands. It is one of only a handful of places to be awarded dual NHL and NNL status.

“Being named a National Historic Landmark site means that it is the best of the best, not just in Alaska but across the USA,” said archaeologist Rhea Hood with the National Register of Historic Landmarks in Anchorage.

The finding raised a lot of questions about the type of people who lived on the islands all those centuries ago.  

“Did they follow walrus and is that what brought them to these islands?” Schaaf asked.

Schaaf believes it is possible that there were earlier occupations at Round Island when the island stood at the edge of the exposed Bering Land Bridge plain.

“I think we know that people traveled quite a bit and people were good mariners. Around 2500 years ago people definitely had semi- subterranean winter houses and we might find out that people wintered there even earlier,” she said.

Schaaf hopes future collaborative research will shed light on the occupants of Round Island. She also hopes that the new designation will prevent vandalism and unauthorized excavations that have damaged other sites.

For her part, Hood thinks the discovery is just another layer on the rich tapestry of Bristol Bay history.

“Everything that has happened in Bristol Bay, from the arrival of the Russians to the recent history of the United States, is all a continuation of the archaeological record,” she said.

“It is part of the story of how we got here today and the context of our current events. We should always be aware that we are walking in the land of our ancestors and should try and honor that.”

Awarding NHL status should make it easier for research grants to be given out to promote further research into the islands, according to Hood.

Jeanne Schaaf and Paul Askoak looking at excavated artifacts on Round Island, 2008.
Credit Richard VanderHoek, State Archaeologist, Alaska Office of History and Archaeology.