Saving Alaskan Artifacts from Climate Change
September 07, 2023Sep 07, 2023
6 MIN READ doing good for people
What does climate change have to do with preserving cultural heritage? As KEENer Bex! Sakarias recently discovered, a lot.
Along the edge of the Bering Sea in southwest Alaska, the effects of climate change on the coastline revealed a rich archeological site — spotted in 2007 when artifacts started falling out of a bluff and into the ocean. Bex! used her 40 hours of paid KEEN service leave to help the Quinhagak Archeological Project unearth as much as they can before the next severe storm claims them.
Read on to see how multi-day weather delays and hoards of mosquitos could not stop her from volunteering on this unique project.
Photo of Bex! and team by Lindsey Paskulin
How did you hear about/get involved with the Quinhagak Archaeological Project?
When I was born, my mother was a school teacher in “a remote corner of Alaska” called Goodnews Bay, out on the coast of the Bering Sea. Quinhagak (QUINN−uh−hawk) is the next village to the north, about 39 miles by snowmachine trail in the winter months. Quinhagak has a population of about 650 people and is 95% Yup’ik Alaska Native. The town has gravel roads, one grocery store (with eye-popping prices), a hardware store, a church, a gas station that primarily serves 4-wheeler ATVs, and a gravel air strip that in the summer gets around 3 scheduled flights per day of very small planes.
It also has an archaeological museum! That museum is home to the Quinhagak Archaeological Project and over 100,000 artifacts unearthed since 2009 at the nearby Nunalleq archaeological site. Nunalleq is multi-period precontact Yup’ik winter village site that dates back at least 700 years. I follow the Quinhagak Archaeological Project on Facebook and saw the news back in February when they posted on the 2023 field season opportunities for students and volunteers. No experience necessary! I applied, waited for confirmation of my dates, talked to my manager, and put in my personal service leave request. I also started praying for windy weather to keep the bugs away – the bugs in southwestern Alaska are unbelievable, with hoards of mosquitoes and biblical swarms of no-see-ums that really love to fly into your eyes and mouth.
What did you do?
The Quinhagak Archeological Project currently has two main parts – the Nunalleq dig site, perched on a bluff on the edge of the Bering Sea, and the lab located in the village. I got to spend time in both.
At the dig site, all your best waterproof clothes are required. My Pyrenees waterproof boots kept my feet dry during the mushy walk across the tundra and my waterproof overalls, rain jacket, and waterproof gloves kept the rest of me dry while kneeling and standing the in mud at the excavation site. No prior archaeological experience was required, and I was amazed to be given about 5 minutes of training and then allowed to dig.
Field work is pretty much moving dirt from one spot to another! And if you’re a newbie like me, it also involves frequently bringing a pile of items to someone with more knowledge to have them identify what’s a keeper and what’s just a stick. At Nunalleq, they practice what is called ‘rescue archeology’ because the site is threatened by imminent coastal erosion. Artifacts not rescued now have a high likelihood of not being here next season. Climate change is triggering storms of increasing severity and frequency, accelerating the speed of erosion, and washing portions of the site out to sea during winter storms.
Bex! wore her Pyrenees waterproof hiking boots.
What makes the situation even more urgent is that Nunalleq is an incredibly rich archeological site. The find-of-the-day here could be the find-of-the-season at most other sites. When I was out at the field site, we found a full-size mask – the fifth of this excavation season! It was upside down and half frozen in the permafrost. We had to work carefully using boiling water and time to thaw the ground and be able to extract the mask without damage. The time involved meant lots of anticipation! All worth it to reveal a fantastic mask believed to represent a bearded seal.
I also worked in the lab processing artifacts. Artifact processing starts with washing the finds brought in from the dig. This is done using water and brushes to remove dirt. Further processing depends on the material – ceramic, bone, and ivory finds are set out to dry while wood and grass finds are put to soak in polyethelyene glycol (PEG) for at least two weeks, during which time the PEG replaces the water in the wood preserving those items for storage. The majority of the finds at Nunalleq are wooden, preserved by the soil acidity and the permafrost. If field work was moving dirt from one place to another, lab work was moving sticks from one place to another.
What was your favorite memory from volunteering?
One of the very special things about the Quinhagak Archeological Project is the associated museum. The artifacts from Nunalleq stay in the village where they are available for viewing by locals and visiting researchers. The museum celebrated its 5th anniversary in 2023, and I was there for the celebration and the Community Day Show-and-tell, where the best finds of the season are shown off.
Quinhagak’s ties to its own cultural heritage were severely damaged by intolerant missionary practices in the late 1800s, and I find it especially meaningful how this work reconnects the locals with their past. For example, since the project began, Quinhagak has revived its dance tradition; the Nunalleq Dancers performed at this year’s Community Day in traditional regalia they crafted themselves. Community Day also features a potlatch, so I took a break from the archaeological work to cook. Highlights were getting asked “do you want to cut up the walrus” for the walrus stew and getting coached by the aunties through making akutaq by hand (pronounced a-goo-duck). Also known as eskimo ice cream, recipes vary but this version was made with whipped Crisco, sugar, and berries. It was a ton of work making everything from ambrosia salad to chicken stir fry, but it was such a privilege to share in the native foods – I’ve now tried walrus, seal, muktuk (whale), moose, and ptarmigan as well as plenty of salmon and berries.
Photo of Bex! making akutaq by Lindsey Paskulin
We also helped with serving and I had the good luck to have the spaghetti as one of the dishes I was serving, which meant I got to talk to all the kids! So fun! In Yup’ik culture, they have a nonverbal way of saying yes by raising their eyebrows. Luckily, I’d heard about it beforehand, so I knew what it meant when a cute face answered my “Do you want some spaghetti?” with a look of raised eyebrows.
What would you say to others interested in participating in this volunteer experience?
It was an adventure to get to Quinhagak, an adventure to be there, and my bug bites are still itching. Having KEEN Service Leave available made undertaking this huge adventure possible. Getting to see these artifacts in person and to participate in saving them from being lost to the ocean was rewarding and getting to participate in the community was a privilege. What might you do with your community or the greater world?