Alaskan Fort Identified

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The team behind a large geophysical survey in Sitka, south-east Alaska, believe they have identified the location of a 19th-century Tlingit fort, destroyed during a battle against Russian colonising forces in 1804.

The shape identified by the geophysical survey bears a striking resemblance to this historical drawing of the fort. [Image: drawing by Y Lisyansky; courtesy of the US National Park Service, Sitka National Historical Park]

Shís’gi Noow, ‘the sapling fort’, was built by the Tlingit on a peninsula at the mouth of the Kaasdaheen (now known as Indian River) as a base from which to resist Russian and Aleut forces. However, during the battle in October 1804, the Tlingit were overpowered and, with gunpowder running low, decided to make a tactical overnight withdrawal, abandoning the fort. It was subsequently captured by the Russians, who created a detailed map of the structure before demolishing it.

The battle represents a key moment in both Tlingit history and the story of colonial Russian America, as it led to the establishment of a Russian colony on Baranov Island from 1804 to 1867, which was then sold to the USA. Sitka National Monument was established on the site of the battlefield in 1910, before being redesignated Sitka National Historical Park in 1972. Although several archaeological investigations have attempted to locate the fort within this area, its position has remained uncertain until now, with some experts even suggesting that the fort stood in an entirely different area.

The recent geophysical survey, the results of which have been published in Antiquity (https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2020.241), used a combination of electromagnetic induction (EM) and ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to search for evidence of the fort site. Together, these techniques identified a feature corresponding in shape and scale to historical documents and oral descriptions of the fort, as well as revealing metallic anomalies that may be related to artefacts from the battle such as cannonballs. Furthermore, this discovery is the only one that matches the expected footprint of the fort, confirming that there is no evidence to support suspicions that it may be located elsewhere, at least within the 17ha area covered by the survey.

There are currently no plans for excavation or further work at the site, but the findings do shed new light on earlier archaeological work. The shape identified by the geophysical survey appears to match the descriptions and plans of Frederick Hadleigh West, for example, who claimed to have discovered the south and west walls in 1958, and William J Hunt who in 2010 found cannonballs and shot in what looks like the north-west corner of the fort site.

This article appeared in issue 106 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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