Dana Zigmund / Juneau Empire 
Within the City and Borough of Juneau, four museums collect objects to tell the tale of the area and its people. The Juneau Empire visited each museum to learn about some of the oldest objects each has on hand. Objects include a Chilkat robe (upper left), a 5,450-year-old spruce root basket (upper right), a fish trap (lower left), and a piece of moon rock (lower right).

Dana Zigmund / Juneau Empire Within the City and Borough of Juneau, four museums collect objects to tell the tale of the area and its people. The Juneau Empire visited each museum to learn about some of the oldest objects each has on hand. Objects include a Chilkat robe (upper left), a 5,450-year-old spruce root basket (upper right), a fish trap (lower left), and a piece of moon rock (lower right).

Turning the clock way, way back

A tour of the oldest objects on display in Juneau’s museums

Juneau’s mountains, waterways, and forests date back millions of years and serve as constant reminders of the people who have called this place home.

Nestled throughout the city, four museums collect objects to tell the tale of the area and its people.

The Juneau Empire visited each museum to learn about some of the oldest human-made objects each has on hand.

Sealaska Heritage Institute

Located in the Aak’w Village District in the heart of downtown Juneau, SHI welcomes visitors from around the world to the Walter Soboleff Building and hosts cultural events and celebrations in their Shuká. Hít clan house. An underground archive space houses historical and cultural material documenting the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian languages, cultures and histories.

A sacred Chilkat robe is among the objects in the archives.

According to Marina La Salle, director of the culture and history department, the robe’s age is difficult to discern, but her staff estimates it’s from the early 1800s, possibly earlier.

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According to SHI’s website, the “blanket is intricately woven from mountain goat wool and cedar bark. This form of weaving is very complex because designs are created on both sides of the blanket simultaneously.”

Emily Pastore, archives and collections manager, said that the robe is in a Raven design. However, SHI does not know the clan ownership of the robe and there is no clan crest is associated with it.

Pastore said the robe appears to be a funerary object because of the frayed edges at the top where it may have been placed above a gravesite.

In late 2015, SHI acquired the robe from eBay seller George Blucker who purchased it from a flea market near Chicago sometime in the late 1980s.

Pastore and La Salle agreed that determining the exact providence of the robe is a difficult task. Like many items in museum collections worldwide, items change hands several times before coming to a museum.

In the case of the robe, the flea market seller told Blucker he had bought it at an estate sale in the early 1980s. The robe was acquired by a grandfather of the estate’s heirs. The grandfather had traveled to the Yukon gold rush in the late 1800s and came home with the robe.

“It was feeding a market of art,” La Salle said. “Which is how it became divided and separated from its history.”

La Salle said that Blucker took the robe off of eBay and sold it to SHI for its reserve price once he realized the item’s significance.

When the item arrived, SHI hosted a homecoming ceremony to celebrate its return to Southeast Alaska.

A sacred Chilkat robe is among the items in the archives of the Sealaska Heritage Institute. (Dana Zigmund/Juneau Empire)

A sacred Chilkat robe is among the items in the archives of the Sealaska Heritage Institute. (Dana Zigmund/Juneau Empire)

Additional highlights

Museum visitors can also see a U.S. government ordnance that the Navy dropped on the village of Kake in 1869.

The U.S. Navy shell was discovered in a tree trunk in the 1940s and stored in a private home until 2011 when it was turned over to the Organized Village of Kake and deactivated.

Kaila Cogdill, exhibits curator, said that the Village for Kake is still waiting on an apology from the U.S. Navy over the incident. Prior to the pandemic, there were indications of progress toward an acknowledgment or apology.

In addition, the museum features stone tools, including an adze with a dark stone blade and a groove cut into the base for mounting a handle.

La Salle said that the adze was an essential tool in creating carved boxes, clan houses, and totem poles.

Tlingit carver Wayne Price used an adze to finish the walls of the clan house located inside the museum.

Alaska State Library, Archives and Museum

Tucked within the quiet exhibit hall at the Alaska State Library, Archives and Museum visitors can view what’s possibly the oldest Northwest Coast basket ever found in North America—the Thorne River Basket.

Dating back 5,450 years, the basket was found in the early 1990s by an off-duty archaeologist fishing in a stream bed near Prince of Wales Island.

The basket was encased in mud and found near mussel shells, which curators think were the basket’s original content.

According to Mary Irvine, museum protection and visitor services manager, the archaeologist had the presence of mind to use his fishing knife to cut a large block of mud around the spruce-root basket so it would remain preserved.

“It was as fragile as it comes,” Irvine said.

Irvine said that the basket was kept underwater as volunteers worked with glass picks and baby aspirators to clean and preserve it. Thanks to their efforts, and the addition of polyethylene glycol, the basket is now strong enough for display.

The Thorne River Basket, which is on display at the Alaska State Library, Archives and Museum is possibly the oldest Northwest Coast basket ever found in North America. It’s more than 5,000 years old. (Dana Zigmund/Juneau Empire)

The Thorne River Basket, which is on display at the Alaska State Library, Archives and Museum is possibly the oldest Northwest Coast basket ever found in North America. It’s more than 5,000 years old. (Dana Zigmund/Juneau Empire)

A replica of the basket by renowned Haida weaver Delores Churchill sits next to the original.

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That rocks

Museum visitors can also view a moon rock fragment collected from the Taurus-Littrow Valley of the moon, the location of Apollo 17’s landing spot in December 1972.

According to a plaque displayed with the rock, the piece is part of a larger rock composed of different shapes and sizes and is “a symbol of the unity of human endeavor and mankind’s hope for a future of peace and harmony.”

Moon rocks are on display at the Alaska State Library, Archives and Museum. (Dana Zigmund/Juneau Empire)

Moon rocks are on display at the Alaska State Library, Archives and Museum. (Dana Zigmund/Juneau Empire)

The Juneau-Douglas City Museum

Located downtown near the state Capitol building, the Juneau-Douglas City Museum collects artifacts from within the borough.

According to Niko Sanguinetti, curator of collections and exhibits, the oldest non-rock item on site is the Montana Creek Fish Trap.

She said that while the exact date the trap was made is unknown, estimates range from 500 to 700 years ago.

The basket was found in Montana Creek near the confluence of the Mendenhall River in 1989. When found, it was the first trap of its kind to be excavated on the Northwest Coast.

Sanguinetti explained that a hiker spotted the basketry-style trap and reported it to the Alaska State Museum.

The placement of the trap in the riverbed, surrounded by gravel and sand, suggested that it was buried quickly by a rising tide.

The quick burial—along with iron in the soil- proved fortuitous, as it prevented the basket’s decay.

A replica of the basket hangs above the original, giving visitors a chance to see how it worked.

Located at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum, the Montana Creek Fish Trap is 500 to 700 years old. It was the first trap of its kind to be excavated on the Northwest Coast. (Dana Zigmund/Juneau Empire)

Located at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum, the Montana Creek Fish Trap is 500 to 700 years old. It was the first trap of its kind to be excavated on the Northwest Coast. (Dana Zigmund/Juneau Empire)

Tools and petroglyphs

In addition to the fish basket, the museum holds several stone tools, including a hammerhead, hundreds of years old.

Sanguinetti also shared a petroglyph that features a traditional Northwest Coast formline design.

She said the piece was previously part of a fireplace mantle in a home near Auke Bay. When the house was torn down, someone found the article. Last year, a relative of the person who found it donated it to the city museum.

Last Chance Mining Museum

Near the end of Basin Road, the Last Chance Mining Museum collects artifacts that reflect the area’s mining history.

Gary Gillette and his wife Renee Hughes operate the museum on behalf of the nonprofit Gastineau Channel Organization.

Gillette said the museum’s building is among the oldest objects on display, as it was built in 1914.

Even older than the building is a paper program from 1888 detailing Juneau’s July 4 celebrations.

Activities included music, readings and sports.

Featured contests included the running high jump and a 3-legged race. Water activities included a four-oar race and canoe races with categories for native men and native women.

The final page of the program lists the people who organized the day’s festivities.

Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at dana.zigmund@juneauempire.com or 907-308-4891.

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