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Nunalleq means ‘the OldVillage’ in Yup’ik. Previous years excavations (2009 & 2010) reveal that this ‘old village’ dates back at least 700 years. It is a multi-period prehistoric (or precontact) Yup’ik winter village site. The waterlogged frozen tundra preserves organic material to an incredible degree. Everything from grass ropes, salmon berry seeds and head lice, along with an abundance of wooden and lithic artefacts and faunal remains builds the knowledge of a Yup’ik prehistory that up until now has been very little known or studied.
Mike Smith pulls back the tarp at the Nunalleq site to reveal a house floor 4 centuries old, still in great condition despite being covered by backfill for the last two years. This level will be our starting point for the 2017 season.
Toggles for attaching harpoon cords to the main harpoon line. Many are carved into the shape of sea mammals. Hunting gear was often beautifully made to show respect to the animals.
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 between 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?
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."
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.
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.
The artefact of the day is a little toy (or model) spear. It is only 10 cm long, made of wood with an ivory inset for spear point, and grass wrapped around the shaft to hold the tip in place. It was found by John in the north-eastern boardwalk.
Joni with an exquisitely carved doll head she found in house floor on top of a boardwalk
The high level of preservation is also keeping other treasures for us; we have found an abundance of coprolites – poop in plain english. Mostly dog we think. Disgusting as it may sound, these nuggets contain a lot of information on diet, deceases, parasites…