by K.J. Lincoln
Imagine holding or even looking at a very old and amazingly preserved Yupigtaq uluaq, a wooden doll, or a braid of grass that is hundreds of years old.
A most fascinating event has been continuing since 2009 near the village of Quinhagak where beautiful and priceless Yup’ik artifacts are being unearthed, studied, and treasured before they are lost to the changing conditions of the land. Knowledge about the Yup’ik culture and people is being discovered and recorded.
This is done through a collaboration of scientists, students, community members, and village leaders who have been working together at the Nunalleq Archaeological Project where scientists have been excavating. Leading the partnership is Quinhagak’s village corporation Qanirtuuq Inc. and Scotland’s University of Aberdeen archaeologist Dr. Richard Knecht who have been working closely together in one of the most important research projects ever undertaken in the Yup’ik culture area of Alaska.
Without this project all of these artifacts could have eventually been lost, damaged, and destroyed.
On August 20, 2015, Dr. Knecht gave a public lecture about the Nunalleq Project at the Kuskokwim Campus. Here are some of his introductory comments.
“We are in Quinhagak on the coastline and the Yup’ik area is really crucial to understanding what is going on in the whole arctic as far as Eskimo/Inuit prehistory. We know very little about it because there has not been that much work.
“It (Nunalleq) is right between high population areas down here in the Aleutians and Kodiak that go back 8,000-9,000 years and the rest of the high arctic where the coastal record only goes back 4,500 years. A lot of mysteries are going to be solved someday by digging in this area, it is really crucial and it is almost unknown.
“As you know the sites here are big, there’s a lot of food, there’s a lot of big populations, people digging sod houses and from the air they look like this on the coastline everywhere you go. There are still massive sites out there that aren’t even dots on the map yet, we haven’t even had a chance to completely survey these coastlines.
“All this amazing archaeological resource here and elsewhere is under threat right now from the combined effects of global warming, especially the melting of the permafrost. Here in North America as well as in Siberia chunks of coastline are breaking off and most of that soil under these coasts is in fact ice. 80% of Barrow’s soil is in fact made of frozen water. So when it melts you get subsidence (sinking), you get rapid undercutting of these coastlines. In some places it has moved back more than a mile and along with that the entire archaeological record that we have is being lost.
“Up in Barrow is the only other salvage archaeology project that is going on right now. We’ve got ours down in Quinhagak and then you’ve got to go all the way north to Barrow where Anne Jensen is working on a site called Walakpa.
“This is what it (Walakpa) looked like in 2013 – see it getting hammered by erosion, same sort of problem. You have some silty soils here that have been thawed out that have the consistency of bread flour. When they’re unprotected by ice, there’s increased storminess, it gets undercut, the sides fall down and the whole thing just folds up like a deck of cards. It’s happening all over the north. That’s in 2013, here it is a year later. You can see how fast these are going. They’re up there now trying to deal with just the remnants of this site – a famous site that has been excavated up there.
“I don’t need to tell you how low lying this area is which makes it extra susceptible to erosion and loss of permafrost. When the ice melts the whole land sinks and the relative sea level rises and that makes erosion even worse – anyone along the coast can tell you that.”
The permafrost soils at the Nunalleq site have preserved an amazing assemblage of 500 year old artifacts including complete Yup’ik masks and baskets, clay pots and lamps, bentwood bowls and boxes, carving tools, harpoons, fishing lures, earrings and labrets, and human and animal figurines have all been rescued from the eroding coastal site since the project began.
The collection, which belongs to the people of Quinhagak, now numbers over 20,000 pieces. They are a testament to the incredible resilience of the Yup’ik people.
We hope to continue with Dr. Knecht’s lecture in a future edition of The Delta Discovery, quyana!