The Petersburg Indian Association has a new artifact in its collection, thanks to the sharp eye of local police chief Jim Kerr. The stone tool may be thousands of years old. Ari Snider spoke with Kerr and others to hear how the unlikely discovery unfolded.
Kerr says he came across the artifact on the beach, totally by chance.
“I was disposing of crab guts down at low tide,” Kerr said. “And while I was walking down there I saw a rock sticking up and picked up the rock and thought it looked interesting.”
Kerr said he’s not supposed to say exactly where he found the artifact in the hopes of preventing people from looting that spot. Either way, he took it home, thinking it was just a funny looking rock that he could maybe put to use as a paper weight. But on further investigation Kerr found out it was most likely an ancient Tlingit artifact — a hand maul, to be precise.
Forest Service archaeologist Jane Smith says it’s hard to put an exact date on this specific piece, but based on the kind of tool it is she estimates it could be up to several thousand years old. She said hand mauls were used with a stone wedge to make cedar planks and other wooden items.
“So it would have been just held in your hand,” Smith said. “And it was flattened on one end and it had a lip on the top so your hand wouldn’t slip off the top. And then it was used mostly for woodworking.”
Smith said this isn’t the first Tlingit artifact found in the area, but added that coming across tools like this is not a common occurrence, mainly because there probably weren’t very many of them to begin with.
“These tools were hard to make and they were part of a toolkit and most of them end up in an archaeological deposit buried,” she said. “But people lose things, they drop out of the canoe and you’re like ‘dangit’.”
Kerr says legally he was not allowed to keep the artifact. So he decided to give it to the Petersburg Indian Association rather than pass it on to the state or federal government.
“Because if I turned it into the state or the feds, my biggest problem with that is that is that it might end up in Anchorage, it might end up in Fairbanks or someplace else, when you know it was found in Petersburg so it needs to stay in Petersburg,” Kerr said.
PIA Tribal Administrator Tracy Welch says she’s thankful to Kerr for passing the hand maul along to the Tribe, especially because a lot of found objects like this one end up in private collections.
“It’s been great for the Tribe,” she said. “People have been asking questions, we have it in the office we’re still looking for a proper display for it. We’re just thankful to Jim for thinking of us and we’re excited to see it back with the Tribe, where it belongs.”
Welch added that having the artifact on display has given members of the Native community a chance to connect with their history on Mitkof Island.
“We have a long history here,” Welch said. “And so this is something that people from the community can come view whenever they want and they can learn more about their heritage. So I think it’s greatly important.”
The PIA has some artifacts on loan from the Forest Service, but Welch said the Tribe has few if any objects like this one in its sole possession.