Alaska News

Archaeologists rush to save Yup'ik treasures threatened by vanishing shoreline

QUINHAGAK -- On the eroding Bering Sea coast of far Western Alaska, archaeologists from around the world are unearthing remnants of an ancient Yup'ik village frozen in place for hundreds of years.

Archaeologists involved say it's the biggest excavation of Yup'ik artifacts from before the arrival of Russians and other Europeans in the early 1800s. The research is taking place in this remote Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta village as well as labs in Europe, Canada and the United States. A leading anthropologist last week sat down with elders to see what they can tell about the finds from stories passed down over generations.

In a region where tradition says old treasures should remain undisturbed, the Yup'ik people of Quinhagak invited the archaeologists in.

Why? "Because we had nothing," said Warren Jones, president of the village corporation, Qanirtuuq Inc., which owns the dig site land. Cultural elements, including language and traditional dance, were stifled by the Moravian missionaries and nearly lost, said Jones, a behind-the-scenes leader in Quinhagak, home to about 700 people on Kuskokwim Bay some 70 miles southwest of Bethel.

Growing up "all I heard about was the church stuff, not what our ancestors did," he said. They had stories but not ancient harpoons, stone ulus or little figurines of mythical creatures.

In a project that began five years ago, scholars, students and Quinhagak residents are working together to carefully dismantle, document and save relics from a sod house site they call "Nunalleq," or old village.

"This is the first excavation of a Yup'ik house," said lead archaeologist Rick Knecht, who has worked in Alaska since 1983 and now is with the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. "It's not just any house. It's a pretty spectacular one."


Nunalleq archaeological site from Alaska Dispatch on Vimeo.

Carbon dating of grasses and berry seeds at the site provides evidence that people first lived there in the 1300s, Knecht said. Then the village was attacked and set ablaze around 1640 by a neighboring settlement during the region's "Bow and Arrow Wars," he said. On the other side of the continent, the Pilgrims had just arrived in New England. But here, people were killed. The site was abandoned.

The old sod houses are on the Bering Sea coast a few miles across the tundra from Quinhagak. They collapsed in the fire and over time. The site was hidden in the tall grasses.

At the center, archaeologists say they found a traditional large men's winter house. Smaller rooms connected by covered wooden walkways were added over the years, maybe as a way to bring in and protect women and children during the village wars, the researchers say. Traditionally, women and children lived separately from the men.

Until the permafrost began melting and the edge of the tundra eroded into the sea, the old village site, down to wooden cooking spoons, was well-preserved in the hard-frozen earth.

"There are all sorts of ghastly consequences to global warming but the one we're worried about is the loss of cultural heritage," Knecht said. "Because people live on these coastlines and the archaeological record is here."

Just in the past five years, 30 feet at the edge of the dig site has been lost.

"It's really going fast, right in front of our eyes," Knecht said. Had the work not started when it did in 2009, thousands of artifacts at this one site would have washed away.

Frozen in time and place

Often archaeologists find discarded remnants of life left behind when people moved away or left items far from home. In the Quinhagak dig, they are unearthing layers of life as it was lived.

Researchers believe the people ate caribou, seal and fish year-round and had ways to preserve meat. They sewed hides, carved drill bits from jade and made ulus with stone blades shaped similarly to the ones used today, though the handle on one old find had a well-placed indentation for gripping. It was a cold time, in the Little Ice Age, and the people were dealing with climate change then as now.

The village likely was one of dozens of settlements, maybe more, in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta at the time, and may have been sizable, said Ann Fienup-Riordan, an Alaska-based cultural anthropologist who has worked with Yup'ik people for 40 years. The people here probably lived semi-nomadically by necessity, traveling to the food sources by season. The old village may have been a long-time winter home. But much is unknown.

"The Y-K region is the black hole of archaeology in the state of Alaska. There is so little work out there," Fienup-Riordan said. By the time the Russians came, around 1830, about 15,000 people lived in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, she said. The region now has about 25,000.

That's why the international project at the old village in a place far off the road system with a digging season just weeks long is so remarkable. The work has been featured in archaeology journals. A South Korean film crew came out this summer.

Archaeologists are concentrating on the men's house as a rare opportunity to find and record items still in place.

"We have this kind of instant in time where the house was abandoned because of a disaster, because it burnt down," said Charlotta Hillerdal, who is also with the University of Aberdeen and is one of Knecht's co-investigators in the dig. "We have kind of captured everything in the house at its latest phase."

All told, the diggers have collected close to 50,000 items, counting ancient animal bones, bits of grass mats that covered the walls, and fragments of wooden tools. Of those, as many as 5,000 are special enough to display in a museum, Knecht said. Jones' favorite: a mask with a dual wolf-human face, a symbol of transformation. All of it is evidence of human activity, Knecht said.

Treasures unearthed

Team members dig slowly with small trowels, looking for anything that stands out in shape, color or texture. The dig site is sectioned into horizontal squares and vertical layers called "contexts" for particular sections of the house. When the old house floor became too smelly from the residue of animals, people would lay a new one on top with grass, dirt and wood chips. Routine finds like bones and bits of worked wood go into marked trays. Pollen, plants and soil specimens are bagged. Diggers who find special pieces such as pottery, dolls or tools call them out. Those items are photographed in place, mapped with advanced equipment and stored separately. The dig team collects loosened soil in plastic buckets to sift through metal mesh for any artifacts missed the first time around.


On a drizzly afternoon that stretched into evening just before the digging season's end on Friday, the team unearthed a wealth of finds. Two matching ivory doll eyes. Tiny kayaks and wooden dolls. A wooden ladle missing its handle. A wedge for splitting wood. It was made from a caribou antler and decorated with a raven's foot, evidence it may have started out as something else, perhaps a handle, then been repurposed, since wedges usually were left plain, Knecht said.

In low spots, puddles from melting permafrost glistened with the oily residue of seals processed there hundreds of years ago.

Celeste Jordan, a maritime archaeologist in Australia whose father mentored Knecht years ago, clicked a piece of uncertain origin to her teeth to tell if it was wood or bone.

Tricia Gillam, a doctoral student in indigenous studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who lives in Homer, scraped dirt with the pointy end of a paintbrush to reveal what the team would later vote on as the artifact of the day.

It was a large, loosely woven grass piece, likely a fish bag, "issran" in Yup'ik, said Gillam, the team's basket expert. A village elder later told Gillam her husband had made something similar for fermenting fish but this twined method of basket-making is nearly a lost art in Quinhagak, Gillam said.

At a more stable site, a delicate grass basket hundreds of years old might require a day or more to extract. Gillam took an hour or two.

"This is basically rescue-mode archaeology," she said.

The work has attracted experts in many specialties: pottery and ulus, plants and bugs, dolls and shamans, bones and baskets. Diggers this year came from Canada, Scotland, Australia, Portugal, Sweden, France, Lithuania and the United States.


Veronique Forbes, the program's assistant field director and an archaeo-entomologist from Quebec whom everyone just calls "the bug lady," is studying insects inside and outside the sod house.

"The most interesting thing is that you can literally use insects to reconstruct activities inside the houses," Forbes said. She's finding dog lice, human lice, fleas and surprising numbers of a particular kind of beetle that does not seem prevalent in the tundra now based on what she caught in little bug traps. The large numbers of dog lice tell her the people processed animal skins inside.

Fienup-Riordan, the anthropologist, last week collected impressions and stories from Quinhagak elders about the objects found. Team members brought in trays of dolls, hunting tools, woven pieces and more for elders, who talked in Yup'ik, sometimes very enthusiastically, about the finds. One elder, George Pleasant, was able to identity the source of the stone for an ulu blade by its color. He described some wooden pieces not as handles, as the archaeologists guessed, but as weights for fishing nets.

"I think it's the best thing anybody came and helped us do," elder Annie Cleveland said of the dig.

The artifacts confirm and add detail to the stories of the village, Knecht said. Fienup-Riordan now has a date for the massacre story. What the elders say adds layers of explanation.

"We only get one shot at it," Knecht said. "These are all pages in the Yup'ik history book."

Convincing elders

Before the project began in 2009, residents sometimes found stuff washed up on the beach a few miles from Quinhagak but assumed the source had washed away. Warren Jones, then the village land manager, heard that a famous Alaska archaeologist -- Knecht -- was working nearby on Nunivak Island in the Bering Sea and invited him to take a look.

"We stopped by and followed a trail of wooden artifacts along the beach. And we found the mother lode here, eroding out," Knecht said.

Jones acted fast. He won the support of elders by speaking to them one-on-one. Then he convinced his corporation board to buy in. It spent more than $200,000 to support the archaeologists in the initial years.

Much of the work now is funded by a $1.8 million, four-year grant Knecht secured last year from the British Arts and Humanities Research Council. Side projects, including arts and crafts workshops in the village, are getting support from Alaska organizations. A nonprofit, Quinhagak Heritage Inc., was formed.

The village corporation still provides support including big platform tents, four-wheelers, a truck and giant red fans that Jones thought might be used to blow away swarms of gnats and flies that Knecht said "come out in biblical proportions." Project grants and individual diggers pay the corporation for housing and meals. Researchers cover their own way to Quinhagak on what Knecht calls "a busman's holiday." They shop a bit in the modern village corporation store, built in 2010. Residents call it "Little Wal-Mart" but with village prices.

Village corporation leaders in consultation with elders are partners with the scientists in decision-making: when to dig, how to preserve the site, what to do with the finds. When archaeologists discovered bodies of several people killed in that long-ago raid, they consulted with village leaders and reburied the bodies.


‘Be really gentle’

On Wednesday, the archaeologists put the year's most interesting recovered objects on display in the big red community building and invited the whole village to see -- and touch -- them. A tiny seal amulet made of mammoth ivory. Wooden masks that had been broken in half. Stone harpoon tips. Pieces of model kayaks that show the evolution of the design. Researchers encouraged children to moisten the old wooden items with paintbrushes dipped in water.

"Be really gentle," Ella McDonagh, a University of Aberdeen student from Scotland, told one group. "Fantastic! Well done! You are a pro at this!"

At a table with tiny pieces of carved ivory jewelry, John Smith, a village master carver, marveled at the skill of his ancestors before they had electric tools and metal blades. It inspired him to recreate some of the more intricate designs but he's not yet satisfied with the result. He'll keep at it. Maybe the dig project will draw village kids away from their video games and cellphones, he said.

His grandson, Michael Smith, was a 16-year-old on his four-wheeler checking for berries in 2009 when he first came across the archaeologists. He had been depressed. Girl troubles. But the dig captured his interest.

"Reviving the culture -- there is nothing that can go better than that," Michael Smith said recently. He worked his way up to camp manager. "That ride to look for berries turned around my life a little."

Another who grew up in Quinhagak, Zane DeBilt, is a student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and also is part of the dig team. When he finishes his undergrad degree, he said, he hopes to head to the University of Aberdeen to study archaeology.


Last year, at the archaeological team's open house, a Quinhagak group performed traditional dance -- the first in the village for 100 years.

Other sites eroding

Artifacts are shipped each year to the University of Aberdeen, which has a northern archaeology program and built a lab to process the Alaska collection.

By 2017, the researchers say, some artifacts will come home to Alaska and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

Both the archaeologists and residents of Quinhagak say they want to create a village cultural center to display some of the ancient tools and art -- and provide a place for artists and craftsmen to work and teach others. The Association of Village Council Presidents may create a repository in Bethel.

Quinhagak may just be the start, Knecht said. Other ancient Alaska village sites along the coast and on rivers are eroding too.

Their stories have yet to be uncovered.

Lisa Demer

Lisa Demer was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. Among her many assignments, she spent three years based in Bethel as the newspaper's western Alaska correspondent. She left the ADN in 2018.