At a site near the Southwest Alaska village of Quinhagak archaeologists are racing against time to uncover Yup’ik artifacts before the effects of climate change cause them to erode into the sea. The old village continues to reveal artifacts that give a glimpse into the daily lives of Yup’ik people hundreds of years ago.
The crowning artifact found this season, says Rick Knecht, the lead archaeologist and a professor from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, is a mask half human, half walrus, in nearly perfect condition. It’s wrapped in several layers of plastic as Knecht keeps the mask damp and cool in a refrigerator at base camp.
“It’s got amazingly lifelike contours with the cheek bones, and the nose, and the forehead and so-on. Beautifully carved out of wood, and as you can see it’s got two little conical tusks that represent that transformation into a walrus. And these are in fact made out of walrus ivory. It’s got a little beard here, and half of it are human hairs and then on the other half are sea mammal hairs, maybe walrus whiskers,” said Knecht.
Knecht says the mask could have been a used by a Shaman. He unearthed it, about five miles outside Quinhagak, on the edge of the Bering Sea, where archaeologists have spent the six field seasons scraping dirt from the remains of a 500-year-old Alaska Native sod house. Today’s discovery of a wooden bowl gives another clue about how Yup’ik people lived.
“On the bottom of the bentwood bowl is an ownership mark left by the person who carved that and these ownership marks were inherited between families. We have about six or seven ownership marks we see consistently throughout this site, which we believe was a very large sod house divided up into compartments which were domestic spaces for women and children,” said Knecht.
His team has found tens of thousands of household items, jewelry and weapons, among other things. The dig is composed of what’s left of an entire village at the site of the ancient community of Arolik.
The objects look much younger than the centuries they’ve endured. That’s because they’ve been encased in permafrost. Wood and leather items can survive for hundreds of years. The oldest objects date as far back as seven hundred years.
Unseasonably warm temperatures at the dig site– nearly 80 degrees- create another set of variables for the crew to deal with. Conditions that Knecht say are driving the crew to work as fast as possible before more washes away.
In the early 1600s, right around the time that Shakespeare was publishing plays and poems in England, Knecht says, these people were crafting art too: carving intricate ivory jewelry and weaving baskets. Then, in the middle of the 17th Century, says Knecht, their communal, sod house was attacked and burned.
Carlotta Hillerdal is a co-investigator with Knecht on the project. Back at the dig, she points to a burnt orange streak running along the dark soil of the dig’s dirt wall.
“This site was abandoned around 1640. So that’s where we have the kind of orange and black soil that you see in the wall over there that we dug. That’s the roof of the last phase of the structure that stood here that was burnt down and abandoned,” said Hillerdal.
The evidence at the site corresponds with local Yup’ik lore about the ‘bow and arrow wars,’ a time of fighting between tribes during an earlier climate change that strained resources.
Those are stories that Yup’ik elder Annie Cleveland knows. She says, when she was a girl, she remembers walking on the beach just outside of her village and finding old spears and human remains along the shore.
“When my grandmother and I used to walk down the beach to get some driftwood or pick berries we used to find spear-anek (spears) and maybe a human bone and skull and we used to put the bones back up there and dig a little bit and cover them,” said Cleveland.
That spot where she and her grandmother kept reburying things has turned into the dig called Nunalleq, meaning ‘old village.’ Cleveland says the project is bringing to life history for Yup’ik people in her village and giving them a sense of pride. The Native corporation in Quinhagak eventually wants to develop ecotourism around the site, but rapid erosion has made getting artifacts out the priority.
As they dig, researchers are finding that the village is larger than expected. With the new discoveries they’ve tacked on another season of fieldwork to unearth more history before it’s too late.
The archaeologists will ship the artifacts to Scotland for study and preservation before they return them to the region. Tribal leaders say they will eventually display them either in Bethel or Quinhagak.