Chapter One: Project Background by J. David McMahan

Griffin, Lion-Eagle HybridCastle Hill, and ships in the harborGriffin, Lion-Eagle Hybrid

During the summers of 1995, 1997, and 1998, the Alaska Office of History and Archaeology (OHA) conducted phased field investigations at Baranof Castle State Historic Site, commonly called Castle Hill, in Sitka, Alaska (Figure 1). Castle Hill, known to the Sitka Tlingit as Noow Tlein, is one of Alaska's most important historical sites because it is identified with events significant in national, state, and local history. In 1962, the site was designated a National Historic Landmark (NHL).

  • The site was the location of clan houses of the historic Tlingit settlement of Noow Tlein until 1804.
  • In 1804, following a battle with the Kiks.ádi Clan of the Sitka Tlingit, the Russian-American Company founded the settlement of New Archangel (present day Sitka) on and around Castle Hill.
  • From 1808-1867, New Archangel served as the capitol of Russia's American settlements. Castle Hill was the location of the administrative headquarters of the Russian-American Company and manager's ("Russian Governor's") residence during that period.
  • In 1867, Castle Hill was the site of the formal ceremony through which Alaska was transferred from Russia to the United States. A re-enactment and celebration of this event occurs annually on October 18.
  • In 1959, one of the first official raising of the 49-star U.S. flag took place at Castle Hill.

The archaeological investigations at Castle Hill, performed in conjunction with park renovation, are grounded in federal and state laws that address the effects of public construction on cultural resources. In particular, the use of federal funds mandates compliance with Sections 106 and 110 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). 36 CFR 800, which implements Section 106, sets forth the review process for historic properties affected by federal undertakings (i.e., any project which receives federal funds, licenses, or permits). Funding for the archaeology was provided as part of an Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) grant from the Federal Highways Administration (FHWA) to the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (ADOT&PF) to conduct repairs and make the park handicap accessible.

Through a Reimbursable Services Agreement (RSA), the ADOT&PF partnered with OHA, within the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation (DPOR), to address cultural resources under the NHPA. Inasmuch as Castle Hill is under the management of DPOR as a state park, the ADOT&PF executed a concurrent RSA with the DPOR Design and Construction Section to perform construction design and engineering for the project.

Figure 1.1. Overview of Castle Hill, looking northeast, around 1970. (from a photo postcard in the collection of Dave McMahan)

Aside from a few small test pits excavated by OHA in 1985 in disturbed deposits, no archaeological work had taken place at Castle Hill prior to this project. The investigations were progressively phased so that larger areas were opened with each successive field season. Work in 1995 consisted of subsurface testing of the proposed construction area to locate and evaluate buried deposits. The need to excavate large (2 m x 1 m) pits to penetrate a thick mantle of disturbed soil on top of the hill precluded excavation of a more widespread array of smaller pits, as would have been preferable. As a result of the 1995 field program, Castle Hill was determined eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) under 36 CFR 60.4 Criterion D, due to its potential to yield important archaeological data (Ballard 1996; McMahan 1996).

This was in addition to the qualities for which the site had already been designated a National Historic Landmark. In assessing the effect of the proposed construction on the Criterion D qualities of the site (i.e., its scientific value), the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) concurred with ADOT&PF and FHWA in a finding of "conditional no adverse effect," provided that a data recovery program be conducted (Bittner 1996). A draft data recovery plan (McMahan 1996) was prepared, and the comments of a broad array of interested parties were taken into account prior to finalization (McMahan 1997). As required under Section 106, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) was given an opportunity to review this document. The ACHP chose not to comment, accepting the data recovery plan and allowing work to proceed as planned.

In the spring of 1997, OHA archaeologists began data recovery in the proposed footprint of the trail system and equipment staging area. Due to the discovery of extensive undisturbed archaeological deposits in 1997, and with overwhelming support from the community of Sitka, a 1998 field season was added. Excluding backhoe tests and excavations done in association with construction monitoring, a total of 172 square meters were excavated to an average depth of about 50 centimeters. This produced a collection of 19th century Russian-American artifacts unprecedented in size and diversity.