ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Unfamiliar items washed out on the beach near the Bering Sea village of Quinhagak about five years ago. The curiosities were clearly indigenous to the area, with designs similar to those found in the Yup’ik Eskimo culture of the region. And they were wood, a material that usually decays after a few decades. Yet they were also old.
The question was: How old?
Warren Jones, general manager of Qanirtuuq Inc., the village corporation, took some pictures and sent them to anthropologist Rick Knecht.
Knecht, who helped establish museums in Kodiak and Unalaska, recognized the artifacts as prehistoric — that is, before contact between the Yup’ik and Europeans in the 1800s.
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“I had a project on Nunivak (Island) at the time, so I stopped by to have a look,” said Knecht, a former University of Alaska Fairbanks professor now working for the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. He examined the area and discussed the possibility of doing a dig with Jones.
The upshot was a partnership between Qanirtuuq and the Scottish university that is uncovering an unprecedented trove of archaeological treasure.
“This is easily the largest collection of pre-contact Yup’ik material anywhere,” Knecht said of the thousands of items dating from between 1350 and 1670.
Some of the most important pieces from previous years’ digs are now on display at the King’s Museum in Aberdeen, an exhibit titled “Nunalleq,” Yup’ik for “the old village.” It will remain on view through Sept. 7.
The grant for the work — $1.7 million funded by the United Kingdom’s Arts and Humanities Research Council — anticipates that the discoveries will be returned to the region for display and study within a few years.
Teams of international volunteers working with local residents have found 8,000 of what Knecht calls “better artifacts.” There are perhaps that many more fragments, all containing information about life in the area centuries ago. And every day, it seems, new and eye-popping tools or decorative items are retrieved from the ground.
There are carvings, weapons, woven grass, clothing, dolls, even haircut trimmings from long-departed inhabitants. “We found some amazing pieces on Saturday,” Knecht said recently. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The first test holes were dug in 2009. They were small, about 6 feet across, but the abundance of material showed that the site had been occupied for a long while and that the settlement likely consisted of 200-300 people.
The following year, the dig was expanded. This August between 15 and 20 volunteers from around the world joined Quinhagak residents in a “field school,” currently excavating the site that now stretches for about 150 yards.
It’s not just the amount of items found at the site that has Knecht excited; it’s the quality and rarity of the materials.
“Because it’s been in permafrost up until now, the level of preservation is just marvelous,” he said. “Eighty percent of what we’re finding is wood or other organics. A lot of them are preserved to the extent that they still have original paint on them. For all practical purposes, we’re looking at new wood.”
That’s important because so many of the things used by the people of Nunalleq were made from wood and other organic materials. In most circumstances such items decompose within a century or so. Here, however, excavators have found intact wooden masks, bowls, bows, arrows and spears. “Not just the bone points, but the shafts,” Knecht said.
“We have scraps of sealskin clothing with original needle holes,” he said, “animal fur, little bodies of insects,” and in one instance a mouse. “The grass basketry — sometimes the grass is still a little green. You can see it fade as oxygen hits it when it’s uncovered. There’s cordage, ropes made from grass and roots. It’s very rare to find them.”
The crew is also finding stone tools and clay pots, technologies that were abandoned early in the initial contact period. But even those durable items are poorly documented in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region, several hundred miles west of Anchorage.
“There are very few archaeological projects in this area, which is about the size of Great Britain,” Knecht said. “It’s the biggest black hole in our knowledge of prehistory. There’s been so little archaeology in Yup’ik country that everything we find here is a revelation.”
Knecht said the dates of the objects are important, because they bracket a particularly intense chill in the so-called Little Ice Age, an abrupt period of colder-than-usual temperatures and ice advances recorded from 1430 to 1455. It wiped out the Norse settlements in Greenland and hammered crops throughout the northern hemisphere of the Old World. The destruction was well documented in court records in Europe and Asia. But how did it affect Alaskans?
That’s something Knecht hopes the old village can tell us. “From this site we can learn a huge amount about how people lived before and after the ecosystems changed.”
Knecht thinks the old village was likely a winter gathering place on the Arolik River, south of modern Quinhagak. It was abandoned after the river shifted. The land is famously moving in this part of the world, constantly rearranged by rivers and ocean currents. The shoreline is rapidly eroding at the old village.
“Most of (the site) may have been washed away already,” Knecht said. “We may just be looking at a portion of it. Maybe a quarter of the original site is left — and it’s going fast.”
The ocean has already taken out the original dig site, he said. “If we hadn’t done the work we did in 2009, 2010, everything, about 8,000 pieces, would have been lost. We’re just barely staying ahead of it. It’s kind of an emergency.”