Tag Archives: Alaska

Fire and Ice

Celeste Jordan

As this year’s excavation in Quinhagak, Alaska, draws to a close, it could not be at a better time. In Area B, permafrost soil appeared midway through the third week and has not melted.  In Area A, it was uncovered on the second last day of excavating in the remaining open squares.  Although permafrost is extremely inconvenient for excavating, it does help to preserve artefacts. Also, in the case of this coastal site, the frozen soil has helped to keep the site somewhat intact from seasonal storms eroding the coast and invariably destroying it.

Certainly for me, the more interesting artefacts that have been recovered over the season are those relating to Yup’ik maritime and seafaring traditions.  They might not be the most spectacular but they reveal fascinating information about how Yup’ik regarded the sea, taught children about seafaring lifeways and the development and use of seafaring technologies. With three miniature kayaks, one miniature kayak paddle, sea animal and water fowl effigies (pendants, toggles for harpoon lines, mask attachments and dance sticks), three fishing net gauges, two gut skin scrapers for waterproof overwear for kayak hunters and broken gunwale sections, my directed study has been most fruitful.

Miniature kayak paddle. Photo: Celeste Jordan 2013

Miniature kayak paddle. Photo: Celeste Jordan 2013

Miniature kayak made of wood. Photo: Celeste Jordan 2013

Miniature kayak made of wood. Photo: Celeste Jordan 2013

Net Gauge. Photo: Andrius Kuro 2013

Net Gauge. Photo: Andrius Kuro 2013

This site is wonderfully diverse in terms of the archaeological sub-disciplines it falls under as well.

  • Indigenous archaeology – it is a Yup’ik Eskimo site
  • Pre-historic archaeology – it is pre-contact
  • Rescue archaeology – coastal erosion is threatening the site
  • Maritime archaeology – Yup’ik were/are a coastal community
  • Palaeoecology – including faunal, insect and plant analyses
  • Palaeoclimatology – Sediment and microfossil analyses

There is also a strong community archaeology focus -

  • High school students worked on site as part of a summer employment program
  • Teachers brought students to the site for their Earth Sciences class
  • The project holds a Show and Tell of all the artefacts, in the village
  • It will generate a handbook to assist the community to identify and recover data and material from other threatened archaeological sites
  • Community workshops have been planned that will ensure Yup’ik voices are heard in the project
  • Development of programs and resources will raise public awareness and education, and in particular will be used to develop a curriculum package for young people in schools.
Community invitation to the Show and Tell. Developed by Celeste Jordan 2013, reproduced with the kind permission of Qanirtuuq Corp and The Nunalleq Project

Community invitation to the Show and Tell. Developed by Celeste Jordan 2013, reproduced with the kind permission of Qanirtuuq Corp and The Nunalleq Project

It has been an excellent experience working on a terrestrial site with such varied sub-disciplines and it has given me a greater appreciation for my dirt digging cousins. I cannot imagine how challenging it would be to draw context profiles underwater – it is hard enough if your wall is not straight!

I have also gained valuable insights into the importance and gravity of community archaeology. Not only are children excited by the finds but community members often drop past just to see what we uncovered during the day. There have been a few instances where Elders have been able to shed light on artefacts and their context. However, with some artefacts, like grass matting and cordage, community members are re-learning lost traditions. The Show and Tell is an integral avenue for the greater community to learn and associate with their heritage. It is marvellous that this project is able to enrich community traditions and aid in greater understanding of why things are done the way they are.

So from Quinhagak, Alaska, I shall see most of you very soon.

Polar bear at Anchorage airport. Photo: Celeste Jordan 2013

Polar bear at Anchorage airport. Photo: Celeste Jordan 2013

Who Gets a Tan in Alaska?

Celeste Jordan

I write to you from the depths of Western Alaska, along the Bering Sea in the large (by Alaskan standards) village of Quinhagak. It is a coastal community of about 700 people (City-Data 2011) that has a long and rich history.

The Quinhagak archaeological site is located right on the coast, about 6.5km from the village itself. The site is under serious threat from coastal erosion and lead investigator, Dr Rick Knecht, says that it all could slide into the Bering Sea with one major storm (Rick Knecht, pers. comm. 2013).

Quinhagak, Alaska. (City-Data 2011)

Quinhagak, Alaska. (City-Data 2011)

With 3 excavation seasons in the last 4 years, the site has produced some amazing artefacts and yielded unexpected information. The site was occupied between 1350 AD and 1630 AD, pre-contact (1820’s for Quinhagak) (Knecht 2012:21). The 1630 AD occupation period ended abruptly when the village was attacked by a neighbouring village in what is known as The Bow and Arrow War (Knecht 2012:23).

(White tent marks the site locale. Knecht 2012:34)

(White tent marks the site locale. Knecht 2012:34)

Over the last 10 days, 19 people from Scotland, the US, Canada, Lithuania and Australia have been working on two separate areas of the site: area A and area B.  Samples of fur, hair and seeds are being taken in most contexts. Below the tundra sod level, broken pottery, animal bones, mask fragments, labrets (cheek and lip plugs), broken shafts, dolls of various sizes, a toy bow and arrow, and lance and harpoon points are being excavated regularly.

De-sodding the site. Photo: Celeste Jordan 2013

De-sodding the site. Photo: Celeste Jordan 2013

The focus of my Directed Study is to understand the maritime subsistence and settlement pattern of Yup’ik culture through artefact study from in situ remains, and site and material culture analyses. This will help not only in my understanding of Yup’ik culture but also, with further investigation, the Quinhagak community in understanding their heritage as well.

So far, last Saturday has been the most exciting day. After many days of removing sod, beautiful artefacts emerged including:

  • An entire and complete bowl
  • A decorated labret
  • A carved ulu handle with what looks like 2 Palraiyuks either end
  • Several dolls
  • A fish and seal mask attachments
  • Mask fragments

These artefacts are a good indication that we are now truly down into the cultural layers—Finally!

Today was beautiful and sunny. Most of us worked in t-shirts, except when the mosquitoes (that are the size of small semi-trailers) and ‘no-see-ums’ (midges) forced us to wear sleeves. I’m anticipating coming home with a tan! We mainly focused on moving through the contextual layers with carefully excavating and screening.

A glorious day on site. Photo: Celeste Jordan 2013

A glorious day on site. Photo: Celeste Jordan 2013

Only the north part of area A produced anything of note today and boy did it produce! In quick succession this is what was excavated:

  • A small wooden box
  • A big wooden transformation doll – female to wolf
  • A labret
  • An almost complete mask
  • Snow goggles
  • Fur
Snow goggles in use by excavator Chas Bello. Photo: Colleen Lazenby 2013

Snow goggles in use by excavator Chas Bello. Photo: Colleen Lazenby 2013

Transformation doll with excavator Chas Bello. Photo: Celeste Jordan 2013

Transformation doll with excavator Chas Bello. Photo: Celeste Jordan 2013

Transformation doll with excavator Chas Bello. Photo: Celeste Jordan 2013

Transformation doll with excavator Chas Bello. Photo: Celeste Jordan 2013

Other artefacts were recovered today, but nothing like what was excavated in north area A by Chas Bello, one of our most experienced archaeologists. We still have 11 days left of excavation. Who knows what amazing artefacts still await us in the dirt?

There are blog posts everyday at http://nunalleq.wordpress.com

References

City-Data 2011 Quinhagak, Alaska. Retrieved 8 August 2013 from <http://www.city-data.com/city/Quinhagak-Alaska.html>

Knecht, Rick 2012 Introduction to the Nunalleq Site. Presentation given to field crew, Quinhagak, Alaska