By Kathleen Jamie. Penguin Books, 2019. 247 pages. $17.
Kathleen Jamie, a poet and nonfiction writer from Scotland, tells readers early on in “Surfacing” that she has long enjoyed a fascination with archaeology and cultural histories. She was especially taken with Inuit art and artifacts and had a habit of prowling British museums, keen on seeing what British whaling captains had collected in the north.
On one of her visits to Aberdeen University’s museum, Jamie learned that archaeologist Rick Knecht, a senior lecturer at the university, was leading the excavation of an ancient village site in Alaska. Knecht, Alaskans may recall, is renowned for his 30 years of culturally sensitive archaeological work in Alaska. Along with fieldwork on Alaska’s coasts and teaching at the University of Alaska, Knecht served as the founding director of both the Alutiiq Museum and Repository in Kodiak and the Museum of the Aleutians in Unalaska.
Jamie arranged to meet Knecht and, subsequently, spent six weeks in Quinhagak, the Western Alaska village of 700 people, volunteering with the excavation of the site known as Nunallaq, “Old Village,” a couple of miles down the beach from the modern community. “In Quinhagak,” her account of that experience, makes up a full third of this book, with another 11 essays that variously confront the passage of time.
For someone who admits she had never even heard the name “Yup’ik” before meeting Knecht, Jamie presents an excellent account of her time in Alaska, where she learned from Knecht; his wife, Melia Knecht; others involved with the dig; and the residents of Quinhagak. Throughout, she’s aware of her privilege as a visitor and thoughtful about the project and what it means both to anthropologists and to those who are connected by culture and traditions. She watches closely and asks questions of those she’s with, acknowledging when some of her questions are “daft.” She writes with precision and the cadence of a poet.
The Nunallaq site, Jamie tells us, is an “extraordinary” one, 500 years old, rich in the material culture of hunter-gatherers who lived there before European contact. Because it had been locked in permafrost, items even of wood and grass have been remarkably preserved. But, as permafrost melted and storm waves eroded the coastline, locals saw their inheritance disappearing. They chose to call in Knecht.
At the time of Jamie’s visit, the dig was in its fifth season, and its finds were being shipped to Aberdeen for cleaning and preservation. (It was always the plan to return the artifacts to the village and, last year, they were — to the new Nunalleq Culture and Archaeology Center. The 60,000 artifacts that have returned home make up the world’s largest collection of Yup’ik artifacts, a wealth of tools and ceremonial items from the time known as the Bow and Arrow Wars.)
The point of it all, Jamie tells us, was not about finding treasure to display; the discoveries helped revitalize pride and traditional skills that had been lost to colonialism and missionary zeal. Young people from the village worked on the dig, learning about archaeology, but they also learned about their own heritage. They took a renewed interest in hunting and carving, actively replicating earlier technologies and designs.
Jamie portrays various villagers — the village corporation president, a young man devoting his spare time to the dig, an elder who carves ivory pendants and earrings inspired by artifacts, a woman who invites her for birthday cake and akutaq. She accompanies locals to boat upriver, into foothills, for fishing. She catches her first fish ever — a trout given to an elder, following tradition. She is well aware of the complexities of modern Yup’ik life: “Jeanette was listening to her iPod. I don’t know what she was listening to, but I liked the way she traveled with her iPod in one pocket and her ulu in the other.”
Always, Jamie is alert to the natural world around her. She marvels at the openness and sublimity of the landscape, in contrast to her Scottish home. “From this small hill the tundra was laid out below like a green sea, sedgy and subtle and glinting with secret melt-pools and waterways. . . Shadows of clouds drifted over the land. It was a dream vision, a mythic view of land before farms, before towns and roads, unparcelled, unprivatised, whole.”
“Links of Noltland,” the second longest piece in the book, also concerns archaeology. In this, the author repeatedly visits (and helps with) a dig in Scotland’s Orkney Islands. In contrast to the Alaska site, this one is 5,000 years old, an extensive Neolithic (the last stage of the Stone Age) and Bronze Age settlement involving encircling walls, houses, workshops and farm fields. As in Alaska, the site was losing to coastal erosion.
After the director of the dig mentions that the early Neolithic farmers were only a step away from the wild — and knew it — Jamie wonders “what it might have meant to them then, back when ‘wild’ was a new idea. Did stories linger of a way of life before farming, before cattle-raising and sheep? Did ‘the wild’ thrill them darkly? Shame them?”
The third long piece in the book, “The Wind Horse,” revisits a time when the younger writer traveled to a Tibetan area of China during the protests that led to the Tiananmen Square massacre. In this essay, she recollects with quiet authority the life she observed and her interactions with others, her “beguiled but well-meaning curiosity.”
That curiosity underpins this entire jewel of a book, which travels the world to think about how people everywhere, always, have “just got on with it” (in the words of one archaeologist), and then, in a final essay (“Voice of the Wood”), returns home for a quiet contemplation of what matters.