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State archaeologist explores Russian heritage


(Anchorage, AK) – State Archaeologist Dave McMahan has been building a base of knowledge about Alaska’s historic Russian settlements for the past three decades. However, many Russian artifacts he and others have discovered in Alaska aren’t explained in writings from the period. In McMahan’s words, to properly identify and understand the cultural significance of these items, “you have to go to the motherland.”

Based in the Alaska Division of Parks & Outdoor Recreation, McMahan has been the state archaeologist for roughly a decade and he presently serves as the president of the International Association of Specialists on Russian America (IASRA). For most of the past decade, McMahan has spent a portion of his summers visiting Russian communities with special significance to the country’s early settlement of Alaska. This work is primarily funded with grant money and vacation time.

This summer, McMahan made his 7th research trip to Russia. With other IASRA members, he traveled to Ryazan, 122 miles southeast of Moscow, where he met museum and university officials and visited archaeological sites as well as the home of the 19th century Alaska explorer Lavrenty Zagoskin. Zagoskin explored the Yukon, Kuskokwim, Innoko and Koyukuk rivers during the early 1840s. Russian polar explorer Mikhail Malakhov retraced a portion of Zagoskin’s travels in Alaska this summer.

McMahan then traveled to Kaluga, 117 miles southwest of Moscow, where he met the Russian Orthodox Chancellor for the Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Kliment, an expert in the early history of the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska. McMahan also made presentations of his research on colonial settlements in Alaska at a seminar in Vologda. He then traveled to Totma, the home base for many Russian traders who participated in the Alaska fur trade.

McMahan said the ultimate goal of these trips has been to enrich the understanding of Russian settlement and artifacts found in Alaska. Thanks to the connections made in Russia, when he or others in Alaska – museum curators, for example – have a question about artifacts found in Alaska, they have colleagues in Russia that they can call or e-mail, he said.

The cultural component is also significant. “There is a significant Alaska connection in some of these communities. People there still feel very connected to Alaska. In Totma, for example, even though it is an inland city, a number of people who lived there in the 18th and 19th century ended up on voyages of exploration to Alaska. These Russian seafarers became wealthy from their trading and sent back money to build churches in Totma, including one that is now the Seafarers’ Museum,” McMahan said.

McMahan’s travels this summer were made possible by the Alaska Historical Society, the Alaska International Education Foundation and the National Science Foundation. Other scientists who joined him on the trip include Ty Dilliplane, a Lower 48 professor and former Alaska State Historic Preservation Officer, noted Russian historian Alexander Petrov and Yury Lyhkin, scientific advisor to the Taltsi Museum of Architecture and Ethnography in Irkutsk.

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