Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Southwest Alaska dig gives scientists rare window into Yup'ik culture

What's being called the first large-scale excavation in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta has yielded a treasure trove of ancient Eskimo objects, and sparked a race against global warming along the eroding Bering Sea coast.

"In the time I'm giving this talk hundreds of artifacts are washing out to sea all over the delta region," said Rick Knecht, a longtime Alaska archaeologist now employed by the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

At the 700-year-old site near the village of Quinhagak -- called Nunalleq or Yup'ik for "old village site" -- workers have discovered dozens of sod homes just under the tundra.

They've recovered thousands of objects that had long been locked in ice. The list includes "miraculously preserved" bentwood bowls, knives with handles, whole clay pots, and carved figures, or "dolls," some with expressive faces caught in a smile or frown.

Sometimes, they pulled items from puddles of melted permafrost.

"It was melting as fast as we dug," Knecht said.

The items are placed in a waxy chemical immediately to protect them because they can crumble in minutes if they dry out.

The find includes what my have been a men's house, or qasgiq, a school where boys learned survival skills from men. Wood shavings lined the floor, perhaps dropped from carving lessons, a common guy activity.

"Boy toys" littered the large house -- model kayaks of wood, slate arrow blades still attached to shafts, harpoon points.

The women's tools, such as moon-shaped ulu knives for cutting through fish and bone-needles for sewing, were found elsewhere.

The excavators, including villagers and college students who raised money to make the trip, feel like they're up against global warming.

With the sea melting the coast and protective ice from artifacts, Quinhagak's village corporation, Qanirtuuq, with help from the Alaska Marine Grant Sea Advisory Program, called on Knecht for help. Kanektok River Adventures, a subsidiary of the corporation, also supported the project.

Knecht, known for helping build Native museums in Kodiak and Unalaska, said he and others found the buried village by beachcombing for prehistoric artifacts in 2009 and following the trail of objects.

That was the first day. Amazing discoveries came quickly, he said.

The site, two miles south of Quinhagak and 450 miles west of Anchorage, isn't the only one in danger of vanishing from the delta.

"These layers in the ground that are pages in your history book are being torn out by this sea level rise," Knecht told a room of villagers from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. More than 200 villagers gathered this week for the annual convention of the Association of Village Council Presidents, which provides social services in the region.

The vast delta, with more than 50 communities scattered along the sea and rivers, is one of the world's largest areas unexplored by archaeologists, he said.

The Yup'ik artifacts known to man were collected recently, within 150 years, often by explorers gathering items for museum archives, Knecht said.

Nunalleq is already providing clues into Yup'ik pre-history and the broader Eskimo culture that includes Aleuts and Inupiat, such as where they originated. More will be discovered.

"We need to know how deeply rooted this culture is," Knecht said.

An analysis of hair strands -- apparently the remains of haircuts in the possible men's house -- showed that people ate caribou and salmon year-round.

"They had a steady supply, from drying and storing," he said.

Leadership in the village of Quinhagak agreed today to let Knecht do DNA analyses of the hair, which might tell if the piles of locks came only from males. If so, it could be a good sampling of the village's male population.

Teams of diggers also found many big animal shoulder bones that may have been used as snow shovels. Woven reed mats were found in house walls, helping keep out the sod. What Knect called "wooden tally sticks" probably kept scores in games.

One treasure included a small ivory carving of a head that may have been lashed to a kayak or some other object, judging from a series of holes in the back. The face contains a smaller face below it, the inua or yua, the Eskimo motif representing the spirit of all things, Knecht said.

There were signs the residents had contact with other cultures, including polished coal beads that may have followed trade routes from the Gulf of Alaska, and calcite lip plugs, or labrets, found in the Aleutian Chain.

The items are being analyzed at labs in Scotland, but they belong to the Yup'ik people, he said. They will return to Quinhagak, a village of 700.

AVCP hopes to build a repository and a museum to store artifacts in Bethel, said Myron Naneng, president.

The repository will give young people the chance to see the richness of their culture.

"By having a repository, you'll be in control of your own cultural heritage. That's a basic human right that you need to have," Knecht said.

Other villages aware of sites that may be disappearing should contact Knecht or Steve Street, AVCP archaeologist, at (907) 543-7355. Knecht's email address is r DOT knecht AT abdn DOT ac DOT uk.

The archaeologists are working on a plan to "triage the sites," Knecht said. That includes training villagers as local archaeologists.

DeMarban, Alex. 2010. "Southwest Alaska dig gives scientists rare window into Yup'ik culture". The Tundra Drums. Posted: October 7, 2010. Available online:

Alex DeMarban can be reached at alex AT alaskanewspapers DOT com.

1 comment:

irvingbissell said...

just trying to reach an actual anthropologist. thermoluminescence is used to date things but could the rocks and sand and pottery store more than just the last time they were irradiated with light? could there be images or even stop motion video stored? sort like a natural dvd? I think the dirty crystal lattice can store more than one wavelength, dont you?