The coastline in Quinhagak is rapidly being washed away as a result of global warming. The Quinhagak community, fearing that its heritage would be lost, asked University of Aberdeen archaeologists to conduct a rescue dig. Within hours of starting digging, archaeologists located a prehistoric village site which was falling into the sea.
The old village
The site was named ‘Nunalleq’ by village elders, meaning ‘the old village’ in Yup’ik. Nunalleq is a winter village site dating from 1350-1650 AD. The permafrost has preserved tens of thousands of rarely seen artefacts from wood and other organic materials, and the collections ranks as one the largest and best-preserved ever recovered from the north.
The exhibition’s curator and director of the archaeological excavation, Dr Rick Knecht, said: ‘This is an opportunity to break some new ground in terms of museum partnerships and outreach with indigenous communities in the north. We began this project at the village’s request because rising sea levels are eroding the sites and objects like entire masks were washing up on area beaches.’
The Nunalleq dig was guided by traditional history, with Yup’ik culture bearers sharing their knowledge with the archaeologists to interpret the discoveries made on site, and archaeologists sharing their data about the site with the village.
Star objects from Nunalleq include Yupi’k masks, intricately carved wooden dolls, and ivory carvings such as a tiny figurine of a palraiyuk: a monster from Yup’ik legend which was said to have lurked in rivers and lakes in ancient times.
These new finds, on display for the first time, are shown together with material from the University of Aberdeen’s rich collection of ethnographic material from the Arctic, illustrating the day-to-day lifestyle, housing, diet, clothing, games and art of people in Alaska half a millennium ago.
On temporary loan
The material from Nunalleq is owned by the Qanirtuuq Corporation (owned and operated by the people of Quinhagak) and is on temporary loan to the University of Aberdeen. After the items from the archaeological dig have been conserved, catalogued and analyzed, they will return to Quinhagak with the intention of exhibiting them in the village.
Past Horizons. 2013. “Nunalleq: The Yupiit and the Arctic World”. Past Horizons. Posted: april 9, 2013. Available online: http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/04/2013/nunalleq-the-yupiit-and-the-arctic-world