QUINHAGAK — One of the most productive archaeological digs in North America is behind a town dump.
“If it wasn’t for the erosion, we never would have found it,” said Rick Knecht, a professor of archaeology at Scotland’s University of Aberdeen who’s guided the project since its earliest days.
Three miles outside the community of Quinhagak in Southwest Alaska, Knecht walked through the landfill toward the dig site. The footpath winds past piles of junked cars, and over marshy tundra with the texture of a wet sponge, toward a mud pit.
Here, on the shores of Kuskokwim Bay, is the richest record of Yup’ik life prior to contact with Russian sailors yet unearthed for study and preservation. Each summer Knecht and a team of volunteers come from around the globe to salvage relics preserved in the ground as fast as they reasonably can.
The hustle is a necessity.
“It’s a race against time,” Knecht said.
The Nunalleq site, as it is called, is under threat from the same coastal erosion eating away land all over Alaska’s Bering Sea Coast and Arctic, driven in large part by the warming climate.
“A big enough storm could wipe the site off the map,” Knecht said.
At stake is more than just the fossil record. Since digging began in 2009, Knecht and others on his team have developed the project alongside community leaders in Quinhagak for a new model of collaboration between researchers and residents. The ambition is an archaeological endeavor that doesn’t just take things and leave. Instead, they’ve worked with the local tribe and village corporation to lay a foundation to provide services for unmet needs.
“There’s a lot of opportunities to grow,” said Lynn Church, the head of Nalaquq, a company set up within Quinhagak’s village corporation to adapt emerging technologies from the dig to local demands.
One example: The drones used for photographing and documenting the excavation site from overhead are being integrated into new methods for counting salmon in regional waterways. That data is critical for the subsistence and commercial harvests long collected by state employees who live and work far from the resources they’re tasked with managing.
“We’re trying to figure out ways how can we employ the future generation,” Church said.
Before the drones, though, came the artifacts, close to 100,000 gathered to date. Bucking centuries-old academic conventions, the archaeologists arranged for the trove of material culture to live locally in Quinhagak, rather than be shipped off to a distant research facility. In partnership with Qanirtuuq Inc., the village corporation, they opened a museum and cultural center in town to permanently house the collection.
This August, the Nunalleq Museum celebrated its fifth anniversary with a potluck, dance performance, and “show and tell” of that season’s excavated treasures.
“It’s not like being a butterfly collector,” Knecht said of the project. “There’s 700 people for whom this means everything, who shouldn’t have to travel to see it.”
From the outside, the Nunalleq site looked like little more than a dozen muddy graduate students slowly scraping out a hole with hand trowels.
But every few minutes, one of the diggers scuttled out of the muck clutching a keeper.
One morning in August, William Powell, a master’s student from Montana, walked over to Knecht holding something he couldn’t identify but looked like a “top hat for an ant.”
Knecht recognized it as a labret, a traditional face piercing.
“It’s a status indicator,” he said, handing it back for Powell to store.
As far as fieldwork goes, the conditions are hard but rewarding. Students, volunteers and professional archaeologists work next to each other in the pit and at sorting tables for hours, six days a week, regardless of the weather or density of the unrelenting mosquito hordes. They live in town at a building owned by Qanirtuuq that’s been modified to meet the annual needs of a multinational excavation crew: bunks, coin-operated laundry, snack foods.
In return, they get to do an exceptionally hands-on form of archaeology.
“This dig site is really productive. Like, we bring home a hundred-plus artifacts every day. That’s really not normal for archaeology,” said Powell.
“Once you’re here … you don’t want to do any other kind of archaeology,” said Anna Mossolova, a postdoctoral researcher who has been with the project since 2015.
A few years ago, while digging at the site, Mossolova made an exceptionally rare discovery: a ceremonial wooden mask with the facial features of a seal. It dates back to 1570-1630, the depths of the Little Ice Age, when the site housed a multi-chambered compound that could see several hundred people living inside over winter.
This year, Mossolova had another once-in-a-lifetime experience while combing through the mud.
“It was my second day digging, and I found another seal mask,” she said, beaming.
The site’s name, Nunalleq, means “the old village.” Long before Knecht was invited by community elders to begin excavating, there were oral histories about a tragedy that had happened there. The archaeologists didn’t set out independently to confirm or refute those passed-down accounts, but instead sought guidance from residents to inform their efforts, and will still regularly consult with them when, for example, they find an object they cannot identify.
“Archaeology is not only about the past, but also its meaning for the living community,” Mossolova said.
Some in the cosmopolitan crew were pointed to Knecht’s project because their academic studies overlap with his work. Others come because it’s a unique experience or it aligns with their values.
“I haven’t heard about any program in the U.S. that offers such collaborative work with locals, that’s what I like the most,” said Fernanda Baxter, originally from Mexico, who learned about the project while interning at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Part of what makes Nunalleq such a fertile archaeological site is that huge portions remained intact over the centuries.
“What really makes the preservation is the permafrost that’s locked it for all this time,” Knecht said.
But the historical circumstances frozen in place are also exceptional: The compound was the site of a terrible massacre, sacked and burned in the course of the bow-and-arrow wars that raged across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta centuries before contact. So thorough was the carnage that when archaeologists excavated, they found the floors “riddled with arrow points” and dog carcasses cooked by the structure fire, as Knecht explained in a 2015 article.
“We didn’t know we were going to find the remains of that battle when we started,” he said, staring into the pit. “It was like picking a site at random and having it turn out to be Troy.”
Wood, hair, animal waste, leather and more organic material that would normally degrade were frozen in permafrost, and those samples are being analyzed through an array of modern dating techniques. The resultant data are giving researchers a new understanding about how Indigenous Alaskans lived before exposure to Russians, Europeans and Americans. And much of what archaeologists are learning is upending long-held academic assumptions about how Yup’ik society was organized.
“What we’re finding out is the pre-contact Yup’ik culture was much more stratified, and these rooms were very much divided by clan and by economic status,” Knecht said, referring to the multiple chambers within the sprawling Nunalleq compound. “They had rich people, poor people, slaves, all of it. Trade that went a thousand miles in all directions. And a lot of ceremonial and religious stuff that kinda backed up the system.”
From history to future
One outgrowth of the Nunalleq project is a cottage industry catering to researchers that has matured into an independent venture serving largely unmet regional needs.
Initially, the local village corporation found ways to provide support services like housing, cooking and logistics for the annual fieldwork season. But in time, that’s grown into a business focused on adapting tools and techniques from academic archaeology to rural Alaska.
“The whole purpose of the subsidiary is to grow new businesses where we can employ some of our shareholders,” said Church, who grew up in Quinhagak and returned after going away for school.
The company is named Nalaquq, which means “we found it” in Yup’ik. In 2022 it was set up to repurpose technology and expertise from the archaeology project that residents and researchers thought could be useful.
The same kind of drones that hovered above Nunalleq to map the dig site are now being used for a wide range of functions. The company is pairing new technology with local knowledge, hovering drones over the tributaries and choke points where salmon are known to pool in order to get more targeted assessments of stocks.
“Using (drones) for salmon counting is cheaper, safer, and more accurate than conventional alternatives,” Nalaquq says on part of its website.
The company is developing alternative protocols for search and rescue groups so they can begin a response with drones, since the state and Coast Guard will not activate air assets until 24 hours have gone by.
“That’s too long,” Church said, pointing to a 2020 incident where seven boaters from Quinhagak went missing and died.
Drones mounted with multispectral sensors are evaluating vegetation patterns on the tundra to help assess the impact of climate change on subsistence foods like salmonberries. The company can map erosion for tribes and government entities, which is becoming increasingly urgent as the pace of river and coastal erosion accelerates, upending land holdings across many rural parts of the state.
To pilot these new tools, Nalaquq is training locals, most of them young people.
“This is their life, this is their culture,” said Sean Gleason, a communications professor at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia who first joined the archaeology project in Quinhagak in 2018. He now works with Nalaquq on research and development.
Gleason said one of the lessons from how the Nunalleq dig evolved with local partners was methods for combining Western science with traditional Yup’ik knowledge to improve subsistence, data collection and people’s livelihoods. A major piece of that, he said, was technical experts coming into the region from Outside humbling themselves and getting better at taking their cues from residents.
“This knowledge is not impossible to find, it’s actually right there. It’s just about the communication that needs to come back,” Gleason sad.
On melting ground
Ahead of the potluck celebrating the Nunalleq Museum’s fifth anniversary, three women from the archaeology crew sat atop a tarp butchering a spotted seal with ulus. Anna Mossolova, the two-time seal mask-finder, along with a German and North Carolinian, pried apart ribs and hacked meat off a shank while taking instructions from Quinhagak’s Alexis Williams as she sliced strips of blubber off the hide to render for oil. Nearby lay a pile of flippers.
“It’s embedded in the community, this whole project,” Mossolova said.
The museum regularly hosts community events, including a newly formed Yup’ik dance troupe, the Nunalleq Dancers. The group performed at the anniversary celebration with regalia crafted over the summer.
Knecht anticipates the dig will continue for another five to 10 years, depending on how the erosion advances. But the project’s legacy will keep going.
“This museum’s here for good,” he said.
One of Knecht’s main preoccupations is how many other sites like this are sitting undiscovered, and how regularly they’re being invisibly devoured by the consequences of climate change.
“There are hundreds, maybe thousands of these around Alaska that are calving off into the water right now. And if they’re not eroding, they’re rotting in the ground, that’s the scary part. The whole archaeological and fossil record is under threat,” he said.
Knecht stood inside the two-room museum, a warren of drawers, shelves and display cases organized not by the old curatorial split between “artwork” and “tools,” but with relics sorted according to their utility. A hand-carved ivory fish hook might be filled with artistic flourishes, after all. Toys, amulets, darts, arrow shafts, ulus, drawers and drawers and drawers full of old life.
What’s at stake in the archaeological record is bigger than academic collections, Knecht stressed. Beyond just the Arctic, pre-Modern hunter-gatherer societies depended on a degree of self-sufficiency and communal interdependence that might prove to be a more sustainable, enduring model for human life than the one we’re currently engaged in.
“We’ve always underestimated what people in the past are capable of, and we’re always putting ourselves at the top of the evolutionary pyramid,” Knecht said. “I’m not sure that technology is the right way to measure success. Maybe stability is the better measure.”
[Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Quinhagak resident Alexis Williams as Andrea Smith.]