Castle Hill Archaeological Project

Top of Castle Hill in 1997
(click to enlarge).


With its commanding view of Sitka Sound, Castle Hill has long been a defining landmark of the local landscape. This rocky sixty-foot-high promontory was once the colonial capitol of Russian-America and the location of events which shaped U.S. history. Here, during the summers of 1995, 1997, and 1998, archaeologists from the State of Alaska, assisted by students and volunteers, scientifically excavated early nineteenth century deposits to recover artifacts and information. The Castle Hill Archaeological Project was designed to collect archaeological data from the soil prior to a major renovation project to make the site more accessible to the public. Despite extensive disturbance from past construction, the team discovered the buried ruins of four Russian-American Company buildings with associated floor and trash deposits. Radiocarbon dating of an adjacent midden deposit indicates that Sitka Tlingit Indians were living at Castle Hill by around 1,000 years ago. From the Russian component, archaeologists recovered an astounding 4,100 lbs. of artifacts (represented by about 300,000 pieces) which they are presently studying in Anchorage. Following analysis, the artifacts will be stored at the University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks. The information obtained from the archaeological project and analysis of the collection will create a clearer understanding of the industries of the Russian-American Company, and day-to-day lives of the workers (primarily Natives and Creoles).

Archaeology at Castle Hill: Window to the Past

In 1995, archaeologists began a testing program to locate and evaluate buried deposits at the former Russian-American capitol. Initially, work focused on top of the hill, within a stone enclosure constructed in 1966-67 for the Alaska Centennial celebration. Most deposits were largely disturbed, but the discovery of a possible cellar floor from the Russian period suggested that other deposits of intact materials might be present. Archaeologists returned to Castle Hill during the summers of 1997 and 1998 to conduct larger scale excavations in advance of construction work to improve access to the site.

In 1997, archaeologists removed and screened the soil from 52 one-meter squares on a natural terrace near the northeast base of the hill. The discoveries in this area far exceeded expectations. The archaeologists discovered undisturbed Russian period artifacts in a layer 10-18 inches below the surface, along with axe-cut timbers and stains from decayed support posts. Within this deposit, the excavators discovered the base of a brick metal workers' smithy (kiln) surrounded by copper slag and waste, a copper ingot, iron bar stock, and metal working tools. They also found finished and unfinished sheet copper implements, along with scrap from their manufacture. The importance of the deposit was enhanced by preserved organic items such as textiles, cordage, rope, hair, fur, feathers, leather items, worked wood, and exotic botanical materials. This extraordinary preservation resulted from elevated soil acidity (pH = 5.9) caused by the large number of axe-cut spruce wood chips in the soil. The organic layer contains a combination of domestic and industrial trash, mixed with materials from nearby building demolition and construction.

In 1998, archaeologists opened an additional 103 one-meter squares east of those excavated the previous year. Excavations in this area, beneath a heavily used park trail, revealed the ruins of at least four Russian period buildings. The floor deposits suggest that at least two of the buildings were workshops. One ruin, mostly destroyed by gardening and trail construction, is believed to represent the last Russian building to occupy the site. The metal workers' smithy identified in 1997 was fully excavated, along with the building which housed it. The intact forge was re-buried at the end of the season with hope that funding might be found for a viewing shelter and interpretive exhibit.

Archaeologists believe that, during the 1820s and 1830s, artisans and craftsmen worked in shops at this location. Manufacturing and repairing industries included coppersmithing, blacksmithing, shoe and leather goods manufacture and repair, and woodworking. The recovery of several modified bird feathers suggest that pen nibs were manufactured at the site as well. Concentrations of lead spatter in the soil document the pouring of musket balls, or possibly lead seals used in the bundling of fur bales. Under orders of the Manager, workers labeled the lead seals with the initials of the Russian-American Company, along with letter codes to indicate the origin, type, and quality of furs. 1830 marked the end of a period of renovation and new construction that had begun in 1818. Baron F. P. Wrangell, who was Chief Manager of the Russian-American Company from 1831 to 1836, noted that in 1833 the population of Sitka was comprised of 847 persons (Wrangell 1980:4) (review history, 1817-1836).

Historic accounts indicate that Natives and Creoles (the children of Russian men and Native women) comprised a large percentage of the workforce at New Archangel. Many Alaskan Native items were found among the items in the workshop area. Ivory and bone carvings identical to examples from Northwestern Alaska were recovered, along with several stone dart points. Items associated with the Bering Strait and Aleutian Islands Natives were found, along with spruceroot basketry and woven cedar bark matting of local manufacture. A notable discovery was a portion of a "Raven's Tail" robe. Only 12 examples of these rare goat wool robes are known to exist. Raven's Tail weaving was done by Tlingit Indians until replaced by Chilkat weaving around 1820. The Castle Hill specimen has design elements essentially identical to those portrayed on Chief Katlian's robe in an 1818 watercolor by the Russian artist Tikanov.

During the early nineteenth century, New Archangel (the "Paris of the Pacific") was the largest and most cosmopolitan settlement in the North Pacific. The settlement was a port of call for traders who also visited Europe, Asia, and the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), and settlements along the North American west coast. The Castle Hill artifacts include coconuts, hazelnuts, bamboo, and exotic woods. Three Japanese coins ("Kan-ei Tsuho") from Castle Hill may document an occasional but forbidden trade with the islands of Japan. Scholars from the Japanese Museum of Ethnology are assisting with the identification of these coins, which were minted during the Edo period (circa 1638-1868).

The Workers and Industries of New Archangel

Between 1799 and 1867, the Russian population in the American settlements ranged from 225 to 823, comprising less than 8% of the total censured population. K.T. Khlebnikov, chief of the Sitka office (1818-1838), recorded information on the population, buildings, industries, and living conditions in Russian-America. His writings help us to interpret the archaeological materials from Castle Hill and, conversely, the archaeology adds depth and color to the written record.

The Blacksmiths in Sitka worked at three forges, repairing sailing ships, making and repairing axes, and making plough shares for the California trade. The coppersmiths also had three shops, staffed by Creole apprentices and masters. They manufactured copper and tin cauldrons, cups, teapots, coffee pots, siphons, funnels, and other types of vessels in two of the shops -- both local use and for trade in the outlying settlements. The copper forge uncovered by archaeologists in 1997-1998 was probably inside one of these two shops mentioned by Khlebnikov. In the third shop, coppersmiths casted small ships' fittings and bells.

Many of the specialized trades in Sitka were directly or indirectly related to the fitting and repair of ships. Coopers repaired barrels for the shipping of grains to the colonies. Less commonly, they manufactured new barrels, tanks, and other ships equipment. Woodworkers and boat-wrights made pulleys, blocks and capstans, pumps, rowboats, launches, whaleboats, and skiffs. Portions of barrels, pulleys, and implement handles uncovered by archaeologists may help us to better understand the scope and technology of these industries. A thick layer of wood chips at the site may partially relate to the construction of log buildings during the company's ambitious construction during the 1820s and 1830s.

Rope makers at Castle Hill manufactured various sizes of cordage and rope for logging and use on ships. We know from the archaeology that workers also used Native-made cordage of cedar bark and spruce root. According to Khlebnikov, candle makers made candles from California tallow to be used in houses and on ships. Archaeologists collected several tallow samples from candlestick holders at Castle Hill for analysis. Painters and assistants made paint from coconut or hemp oil. Both buildings and ships were frequently painted to prevent them from rotting in the damp climate. An active trade with the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), and perhaps paint making, is evidenced by the archaeological recovery of coconuts in the Castle Hill deposits.

Public Education and Interpretation

Sitka had an estimated 200,000 visitors in 1997 and again in 1998. Some indicated to public officials that the dig was a highlight of their visit. From its inception, the Castle Hill Archaeological Project had public involvement and education as priorities. At Castle Hill, local residents were invited to work at the dig under the supervision of trained archaeologists. It was an opportunity to teach site stewardship and basic principles of archaeology. Experienced archaeologists and historians from other communities also participated in the excavations as volunteers. Castle Hill archaeologists collaborated with local groups to offer classes, lectures, site tours, and museum exhibits.

The excavations have produced the largest collection of 19th century Russian-American materials from Alaska. The collection, due to its size and diversity, will be the focus of scholarly research for many years. The rich body of information contained within the Castle Hill collection may help promote a better understanding of the day-to-day lives and industries of the working class employees of the Russian-American Company. The archaeological data compliments the archival record, which focuses on important people and events or the broader view of history. The collection already is providing insights on architecture, trade, industry, food preference and preparation, adaptive re-use of material items, and consumer choices in Russian-America.