The Rat Islands Earth Mounds Project


The Rat Islands Earth Mounds Project investigates the conspicuous earth mounds of the Rat Islands group of the western Aleutian Islands, Alaska. The project aims to explore the complexities of this cultural landscape, to contribute to the limited understanding of Rat Islands culture-history, and to contribute to the discussion of hunter-fisher-gatherer expressions of group-identity. The project employs the wisdom of the theoretical approaches of materiality, monumentality, identity, and cultural memory, and the methodologies of landscape archaeology to meet these aims. For more information, photographs, and project updates, visit the project website!


The Aleutian Islands are home to a variety of mound-like landscape features which are entangled in an intimate dance between the natural and cultural realms of human perception. The Rat Islands earth mounds have been lumped under the umbrella of natural “bird-mounds” since the early- mid 20 th century and have been absent from conversations about the complex cultural landscapes of the Aleutian Islands. Regardless of the processes which led to the development of these mounds, they are enduring players in Unangax worldviews. They are the physical places where human actions take place, and the cognitive places on which intentions and sub-conscious decisions are founded. They are the unique interpretations of a pan-Aleutian tradition of manipulating the landscape and embody negotiations of regional identity. An understanding of the Rat Islands culture-history must be inclusive of the earth mounds as they actively exist in the cultural landscape of the Unangas/Unangan people.

2019 Field Work

A team of three researchers identified more than 250 earth mounds in patterned clusters near prehistoric occupation sites on Kiska and Amchitka. They completed the subsurface testing of eighteen earth mounds. Field test methodologies included extracting subsurface samples with a soil- probing auger, two shovel tests, and two trench excavations. High resolution aerial imagery was captured using a DJI Mavic Pro 2 drone. Charcoal samples and two soil columns were collected for radiometric and soil chemistry analyses. Several probe extractions were collected for manual review in a laboratory setting.


To date, this project has defined eight new cultural sites in the Rat Islands, compiled new datasets for the western Aleutian Islands, and offered new perspective for investigating the complex cultural landscapes of Arctic hunter-fisher-gatherer societies. Datasets include radiocarbon dates, soil chemistry, stratigraphy, earth mound distribution, and imagery.

Development and Support

Bobbi Hornbeck (PhD Candidate at SUNY – University at Buffalo) completed a pilot study for this project in 2014 in collaboration with the Rat Islands Research Project led by Caroline Funk, PhD (SUNY – University at Buffalo), Brian Hoffman, PhD (Hamline University), and Nicole Misarti, PhD (University of Alaska, Fairbanks). The pilot study was developed after identifying clusters of earth mounds near prehistoric occupation sites in the Rat Islands. Archaeological testing indicated that at least one of these earth mounds was cultural, necessitating further examination. Hornbeck developed the pilot study into an exploratory investigation for her doctoral dissertation research project: “Unangax Monumentality: Hunter-Fisher-Gatherer Transformations of the Rat Islands, Alaska”, otherwise known as The Rat Islands Earth Mounds Project. The Rat Islands Earth Mounds Project was funded through NSF- OPP award #1901720; additional financial support was received from the PaleoWest Foundation.