Bridging Past and Present: A Study of Precontact Yup’ik Masks from the Nunalleq Site, Alaska

Anna Mossolova and Rick Knecht

Abstract

This article examines precontact Yup’ik masks, maskettes, and mask fragments recently recovered from the Nunalleq site (16th–17th century AD) near the village of Quinhagak, Alaska. Remarkable in their number, size, and variety of designs, the Nunalleq masks, which represent spirits, humans, and animals, indicate a very active ceremonial life among the residents of Nunalleq settlement. This paper combines archaeological, ethnographic, and oral history accounts to demonstrate the existence of a rich mask-carving tradition in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta flourishing at least two centuries prior to European contact. The iconography of Nunalleq masks shows interesting regional connections as well as strong continuity between the pre- and postcontact Yup’ik mask making. Mask-making traditions are conservative, but far from frozen, and some fluidity can be observed within the Nunalleq mask assemblage over the course of ca. 150 years of the site’s occupation.

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