Burning Down the Western Wikiup

Dec. 14, 2011 — Western anthropology student Gaia Ewing had mixed feelings as she watched the wikiup – a model of a prehistoric structure that she helped build – go up in flames last week in the name of science.

In October 2009, Ewing and her classmates spent more than 40 hours building the wikiup on campus as part of the archeology laboratory courses taught by Casey Dukeman. Made of mud, stones and sticks, the cone-shaped wikiup was modeled after the 10,500-year-old structures excavated from the Mountaineer Site on top of Tenderfoot (aka “W”) Mountain. Using contextual evidence gained through precise mapping techniques, the students were able to create a full-scale model of the wikiup with the same materials that were used prehistorically. 

“I was a little sad to see it go, but I was mostly excited because this is one of the project’s final steps,”  Ewing remarked. “Burning the wikiup definitely will provide useful data for better understanding of the Mountaineer Site.”

The “living research project” provided various opportunities for students to conduct hands-on experiments. They have shared their findings at conferences, in publications, as well as with local school children. This project generated numerous professional publications, presentations, scholarships and awards.

“Anthropology students at Western are well known in academic and professional archaeological circles for designing and implementing their own experiments to answer questions about field school research that is useful to both the on-going research and student development,” Dukeman noted. “This research is seen by these communities as ground breaking, especially in the ways in which it has gleaned insight into the archaeological record.”

Western students conducted a number of experiments with the wikiup. Among the tests was measuring the structure’s thermodynamics to learn whether or not it retained enough heat to warrant its use and construction. Students conducted a series of 24-hour experiments recording the structure’s internal temperatures, which included staying overnight in the wikiup in sub-zero temperatures. The result – the wikiup retained heart, even when unoccupied.

“I learned that it is in fact possible, and not too uncomfortable, to sleep in a structure made of sticks and mud on a cold, Gunnison winter night,” Ewing noted.

Students also monitored and recorded the cumulative effects of the wikiup’s decomposition during the past two years. The decision to burn it was based on evidence that the structures had been destroyed by fire after they were abandoned. Students will then excavate the structural remains to assess movement of construction materials and artifacts after the burn.

“This model has been a tremendous aid in our understanding of the architectural technology employed by Folsom inhabitants of the Gunnison Basin 10,500 years ago,” Dukeman said. “Burning our model also will help us understand processes through time and help with our interpretation of archaeological sites. Overall, the wikiup was a living research project that benefited our students, the community, and most importantly, our understanding of the prehistoric people who lived in Gunnison.”

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Friday, January 13, 2012 - 5:15am