Last week I returned home after spending just shy of a month working in Quinhagak, Alaska excavating a pre-contact Yup’ik sod house at Nunalleq. I’d known about this dig for a number of years, after Dr Gordon Noble (head of archaeology at Aberdeen Uni) snuck me down to the storeroom to have a peek at some of the artefacts from the site back in 2014. I remember looking into drawers full of wooden dolls, kayak fragments, beautifully carved ivory and even grass baskets and being blown away by the preservation – made possible because of the permafrost conditions they were excavated from. A couple of years passed then back in November 2016 an email appeared in my inbox from Dr Charlotta Hillerdal explaining that the project was looking to put together an educational package focusing on the excavations. This would be a desktop application which would act as a digital resource where children in the surrounding region could learn about the project through interaction with storytelling, film, digital reconstruction and animation. Naturally I jumped at the chance to be involved.
So in July I packed my bags (and the strongest bug repellent money could buy) and made the long journey from Scotland to Alaska via Dundee > Glasgow > Reykjavik > Seattle > Anchorage > Bethel > Quinhagak. It took nearly two days, with an overnight in Anchorage to make it to the coast of the Bearing Sea. Each plane I boarded got smaller and smaller and in Anchorage I entertained the line behind me by having to make the undignified climb up onto the bag scale after I didn’t know my weight in kilograms (only in stones, which is no use to man nor beast apparently…sorry America). The shame.
The second day of flights afforded some stunning views over the Alaska Range coming out of Anchorage, then again as we followed the Kuskokwim River west to the coast.
I arrived in Quinhagak off the wee 10-seater plane and was picked up by camp manager Mike (after being welcomed by the lovely woman in the waiting hut who fed me salmon strips and ‘Eskimo ice cream’ while I waited!). Straight away I knew Mike was going to be great banter as we chatted away on the drive into town, we dropped off my bags, choked down a quick lunch then it was straight on his 4-wheeler to hammer down to the beach to visit everyone on site and get digging. It was a roasting hot day but when we dropped down to drive the 3 miles along the beach to the site it was thick with mist rolling in off the water. Ghosts of mist whipped by and dampened our hair as we flew along the beach and I think I grinned the entire drive!
We arrived onsite, I greeted the folks I already knew and was quickly introduced to those I didn’t, and so began 3 weeks of digging at Nunalleq.
The site is incredible. Like, seriously incredible. It’s what you imagine archaeology to be as a kid, but better. Everywhere you dig onsite becomes littered with little red find flags and in places the contexts are so clear cut and satisfying (…in others they’re nonsensical and confusing…but let’s not dwell on that now as I reflect back on my rose-tinted memories of the site!).
Digging a site which was bringing up so many beautifully carved objects meant that frequently you’d identify something that looked worked, gently clean back the mud and suddenly exclaim “Oh, hello!” as a carved face peered back at you from the soil.
Aside from all these incredible finds – bentwood vessels, elaborately carved spoons and decorated ivory toggles (photos above from the Nunalleq Blog) – this seemed to be the year for masks at Nunalleq.
Drew Michael – an incredibly talented contemporary mask carver and all round scream to have on site – came to dig with us for a week and very appropriately found a small mask himself. When he returned to Anchorage he got straight to work and carved a piece called “Dreammask” inspired by his time in Quinhagak.
In his own words he says: “Dreammask is a spirit that showed itself to me while I was in Quinhagak, Alaska. This spirit had red along the chin. I feel representing the strength and root of the place and people who live and lived there. The nose is shaped similarly to the one on the mask I found in the house floor. The color on the cheeks are of the earth and show the connection we have with the places where we live. Especially our connection to land and spirits that live around. Basswood, acrylic, handmade nails from France, glass beads, pearl, chain, feathers, bentwood. September 2017 40x26x4”.
I always love to see the work of contemporary artists responding to archaeological finds and concepts so seeing Drew’s finished mask pop up on Facebook yesterday was fantastic. …And really made me miss everyone on the team, as Anna says “one big dysfunctional family”!
We worked long days on site, leaving the village at 8:30 am and not returning most nights til 7:30 pm or so, sometimes even later (the team dug a few more days after I had to head home and were on the go til 10pm some nights, the nutters!).
We were well looked after by Mike, Mary and Cheryl though, from feasts of salmon, to lunchtime noodle soups in the crew tent and even generator-run fans when the bugs got too bad!
And oh man, the bugs. I never thought I’d be wishing for gale force winds and rain but I’d take that any day instead of the no-see-ums.
We had some cracking adventures getting to and from site, either in the crew van and over the tundra, or flying down the beach on the 4-wheeler with the trailer in tow. I even had a day driving the 4-wheeler to help Jonathan drain his tundra holes…don’t ask. Everyone survived though looking at Jon’s face on arriving I may have taken the creek crossings a bit enthusiastically!
When I arrived Vero told me there were two types of people on site, context people and artefact people. I think like most people I started off as an artefact person, riding the waves of excitement uncovering all these beautiful fragments of rich Yup’ik heritage from the soil. But somewhere in my second week, after getting a “project patch” going along a boardwalk in the centre of the sod house with Vero I began to feel the thrill of solving the mysteries of the different contexts as they gradually unfolded. Vero and Charlotta are particularly impressive at getting their eye in to follow edges of house floor, deposits of sod wall and everything in between. Sometimes I had no idea how they were seeing the changes in the soil, particularly after the site started to flood each day with rainfall and permafrost melt as we dug deeper. I learned so much from those two.
But I have to say, as a kayaker, digging on a site where fragments of my most beloved mode of transport (aside from my campervan, obviously) were frequently plucked from the soil was a real treat.
I think the best find though had to be a half mask I dug out from under a boardwalk in the house. Especially because the day that it happened was a pretty big one as I’d just that morning presented the concept art for the educational resource to the Quinhagak Board. The presentation went really well and we were all still buzzing about it on the drive down to site that lunchtime. It was the perfect day – sunny with a good breeze to keep the bugs down and as Charlotta, Rick and I flew down the beach on the 4-wheeler I grinned the whole way.
Shortly after we arrived back on site, some of the board members from the meeting came down for a visit so the timing of the mask couldn’t have been more perfect. About two trowel strokes into my day and I spotted something wooden and clearly worked coming up from the silty, grassy deposit I was digging. The backs of the masks are carved out and have a very distinctive scooped character to them so immediately I had an inkling of what I was dealing with. I made some noises and everyone started to gather round for a look. After I’d cleaned it back and taken the in situ photographs I popped it out of the ground and handed it straight up to elders John and Grace…it was a moment!
Then, as if that wasn’t amazing enough in itself, last week back in the lab conservator-extraordinaire Sandra recognised that the piece I’d found looked very similar in style to one found earlier in the season – and would you believe it, they fit together perfectly. Unbelievable.
Needless to say I’m already excited to head back to continue work on the project next year when the artefacts are all being returned to the new cultural centre which has been built in Quinhagak with the support of the local Qanirtuuq Corporation. In the meantime I have a mountain of work to get on with processing all my data and footage, further developing ideas for content following the board meeting and cracking on with the house reconstructions now that I’m home. What an incredible project to be part of, it’s a real privilege to be working with the team from Aberdeen and the community in Quinhagak.
As Rick says, this place really gets under your skin.