Nunalleq: Archaeology, Climate Change, and Community Engagement in a Yup’ik Village

Charlotta Hillerdal, Rick Knecht and Warren Jones


In this paper, we present an overview of the most recent results of the ongoing research on the Nunalleq site in Southwestern Alaska, a late pre-contact Yupik settlement. This endeavor is a long-term project that has taken place in the context of the threat that the combined effects of climate change poses to archaeological heritage in the sub-Arctic. Recent climate-change research highlights local involvement and monitoring as the way forward, and here we see the clear intersection with community-based archaeology. From its initiation by the descendant Yup’ik village of Quinhagak, the Nunalleq Project has been conducted as a community-based project, and the local engagement with archaeology has continued to increase. We identify community archaeology as crucial to the future of Alaska archaeology, and the only feasible way to monitor and preserve archaeological resources now threatened by climate change.

The winter of 2017–18 was the warmest ever recorded in the Arctic to that year, with record low sea-ice coverage (NSIDC April 4, 2018; Weisberger 2018). In the era of global warming, the warming of the Arctic is disproportionally high (Osborne et al. 2018), and the region has been highlighted as most immediately impacted by climate change (Rowland et al. 2010; Salick and Byg 2007:7), with indigenous people of the Arctic considered especially vulnerable due to their close relationship with a fragile environment (Henshaw 2016:157; Larsen et al. 2014:1583). Last winter actualized all these concerns. The Arctic and sub-Arctic environments are facing immediate ecological changes and subsequent challenges for peoples living off the land (Salick and Byg 2007:12). Consequences of climate change are seen in decreased sea-ice coverage, sea-level rise, thawing perma-frost, ecosystem changes, less predictable weather, and severe storms. The combined effects have impacted subsistence economies and damaged physical infrastructure in many Arctic communities (Larsen et al. 2014:1583–1584, 1593). The effects are amplified in coastal areas where these factors lead to rapidly increasing rates of coastal erosion. Low-lying areas, such as deltas, are even more vulnerable to sea-level rise, with resulting flooding and erosion (Wong et al. 2014:367, 380).

Surface-air temperatures in Alaska are increasing twice as fast as the global average, resulting in shortened snow-covered seasons, thawing permafrost, reduced sea ice, and widespread glacier retreat (Chapin et al. 2014:516; Cochran et al. 2013:558). The warming climate affects local ecosystems, which consequent impacts on traditional subsistence, hunting, and fishing. More than 40% of the federally recognized tribes of the United States live in Alaska, and these changes very significantly affect their daily lives (Chapin et al. 2014: 516). Some communities are even forced to consider relocation from their traditional homeland, along with the deeply felt cultural losses that would inevitably result from being uprooted (Bennett et al. 2014:298; Marino 2015). The increased thawing of permafrost along coasts and rivers poses an acute threat to Alaska Native villages, bringing serious erosion, flooding, and destabilizing of the ground with consequential destruction of infrastructure, roads, and buildings. Several Native communities are already in the process of, or in need of, relocating their entire village (Bennett et al. 2014:306). When cultural values are highlighted in climate considerations concerning Native Alaskans, they are usually identified in a cultural and spiritual connection to the land and traditional subsistence strategies (cf. Bennett et al. 2014:298; Chapin et al. 2014:516; Cochran et al. 2013:559). Archaeology is very rarely mentioned as part of Native Alaskan heritage, and it is equally rarely included as a cultural resource under threat. However, coastal erosion and thawing permafrost are also threatening the survival and integrity of most if not all archaeological sites in the north (Matthiesen et al. 2014; O’Rourke 2017; cf. Hollesen et al. 2018), and the entire precontact cultural heritage of Alaska is now at risk.

Alaska still includes vast amounts of territory that are largely unsurveyed and tested archaeologically. For its size, relatively few archaeological excavations have been conducted, and the prehistory of Alaska is outlined through a handful of milestone sites and incompletely understood prehistoric sequences (Dumond 1984). An enormously greater portion of the archaeological record here remains uninvestigated, with most areas in Alaska lacking even cursory pedestrian archaeological surveys. With the progressive losses from climate change, the need for documenting and recovering the archaeological record has become increasingly time critical. Coastal sites undergoing active erosion are the most visible; however, our research has found that melting permafrost may well be an even greater threat as thawing soils leave hitherto preserved organic artifacts vulnerable to surprisingly rapid decay. We have observed substantial declines in the preservation of wood, leather, and grass artifacts in formerly frozen soils that have been thawed for only 3–5 years (for comparison, see Hollesen et al. 2016).

The challenge for Alaskan archaeology is thus twofold: first, to recognize the threats of climate change to our global archaeological heritage and include it into overall remedial agendas concerning global warming; second, to fully empower indigenous communities and build local capacities to preserve archaeological heritage. The Nunalleq Project attempts to address both of these challenges and has found that the answer lies in building a collaborative practice and genuine power-sharing.

The Nunalleq Project began in 2009 on the initiative of the Native village of Quinhagak, after recognizing the danger of losing their archaeological heritage to coastal erosion. From its beginning the Nunalleq Project has been a visionary project: large scale archaeological excavations had never before been attempted within the Yup’ik region (cf. Shaw 1998), an area the size of the island of Great Britain, and members from the local community set the agenda from the start. Although community-based research is now common practice in North American archaeology, examples are few from mainland Alaska (cf. Lyons 2016). Along with efforts like the Nuvuk Archaeology Project at Point Barrow (Jensen 2012), the Nunalleq Project is breaking new ground in Alaska’s research history. The Nunalleq excavation is to this date the most extensive archaeological excavation undertaken in Southwestern Alaska. In eight field seasons, we have excavated a largely contiguous block of more than 500 m2, with 68 m2 of the excavated area already lost to ongoing erosion. The volume of the site deposits removed so far is about 750 m3, roughly 1,200 metric tons.

The site is exceptionally well preserved; permafrost and anaerobic soils have kept organic material virtually intact through the centuries (Knecht 2014), yielding by far the largest collection of precontact Yup’ik material in the world. With artifacts numbering about 75,000, excluding small ceramic and lithic fragments, it now comprises one of the largest archaeological collections ever recovered from a single site in Alaska. The quantity and quality of Yup’ik precontact material in the collection, preserved for centuries by permafrost, is unprecedented and represent an invaluable scientific as well as a cultural resource.

Nunalleq: A Community Project

The Nunalleq Project started on the ground; ancient artifacts were found by Quinhagak residents on the beach, which prompted the community to contact archaeologists. After having been turned away by state and federal agencies, the village contacted Rick Knecht, then at the Department of Alaska Native and Rural Development at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Thus, as a community-based research project, the Nunalleq excavation was initiated to address two related community concerns widely shared by other villages in the region. First, there was a need to engage younger generations in learning about and preserving their cultural traditions and heritage. Secondly, the appearance of well-preserved wooden artifacts on the shorelines, including masks and dolls, was an obvious sign that at least one or more archaeological sites were being actively destroyed, and the need for rescue archaeology was urgent.

The impact of the Nunalleq Project has steadily grown over the years since its inception. When it first began, on the initiative of Warren Jones, then President of the Native Corporation Qanirtuuq Inc., the project had general support from the elders of the community, but to most Quinhagak residents, archaeology was something foreign and distant. Other sentiments were at play as well: a vague distrust in the foreign academics and their motives, a skepticism towards the usefulness of archaeology, and a fear that excavation would disturb, or somehow show disrespect to, ancestors and a spiritual connection to the past.

As is often emphasized (i.e., Nicholas et al. 2008), a successful community project is a long-term investment, and over the years the archaeology has become more and more incorporated into village life and vice versa. With the project, the idea of an archaeological Yup’ik heritage and an appreciation for the time-depth and complexity of precontact Yup’ik culture has taken root in Quinhagak. The attention the project has met with locally and in the nonacademic media has spread this idea to the wider region with neighboring villages looking into starting similar projects. The archaeological process itself has transformed the idea of archaeological heritage from the abstract and irrelevant, to something that is now both an important and engaging part of village life and the seasonal rhythm of the community (cf. Lyons 2013: 6).

Most importantly, this project is firmly rooted in the village with the academic partners supplying some of the needed tools and expertise to carry it out. The presence of the site reinforces strong sentiments of belonging to the land as well as long-held traditions of place-based learning. The archaeological remains and artifacts encourage interaction with the past, and provide very concrete links between the traditional and contemporary ways of life—and through the lens of the past, the present becomes more significant. The archaeological excavation has inspired other forms of engagement with Yup’ik culture, such as the rein-troduction of Yup’ik dancing to Quinhagak (LKSD Media 2015). This process has been organic, but at the same time intentional, even though at this point it has exceeded the original expectations of all concerned. Although a research project, archaeological practice, on and off-site, aims to be as inclusive as possible, and the local perspective is informing interpretations every step of the way. The project can be seen as a mutual exchange project; people in the village have gained archaeological knowledge and skills, and archaeologists have gained knowledge of Yup’ik culture and local ecological knowledge. The Yup’ik community in Quinhagak are not the subjects of our study but rather our colleagues in our joint attempts to reconstruct the past (cf. Meskell 2010:448). The outcomes are many, still evolving, and remain a very much shared story.

Quinhagak has a population of approximately 700 people, almost entirely made up of Alaska Natives. The village is not connected by road to any other community and only accessible by plane or boat, and so supplies have to be flown in or shipped by barge at considerable cost. Logistics are complicated, which is another reason large-scale archaeological projects are rare in Alaska. For such a small and remote village, the undertaking of a research project this size is immense. It is an attestation to the village’s dedication that it was even attempted.

The Nunalleq site (GDN 248), is located on land owned by Qanirtuuq, Inc, the ANCSA village corporation of Quinhagak. The site is located about five km south of the modern village of Quinhagak, on the southern edge of the Yukon-Kuskokwim (YK) Delta of southwestern Alaska (Fig. 1). In consultation with village elders the site was named Nunalleq—or “the Old Village” in Yup’ik, although its association with the historically known village of Agaligmiut was well known (see Fienup-Riordan et al. 2015:68). The main occupation of the site, 16th–17th century, occurs during one of the coldest phases of the global climatic cooling period known as the Little Ice Age (Masson-MacLean 2018), lasting from early 14th to mid-19th century. Thus, the site has potential to provide important data to the discussion on past adaptations to climatic stress and to inform future responses to climatic changes (cf. Hambrecht et al. 2018; Mitchell 2008; Van de Noort 2011).

Figure 1.

Site location map of Nunalleq and showing Quinhagak.

The Nunalleq Project is set up through a formal partnership between Qanirtuuq Inc. and the University of Aberdeen and was from the outset designed to respond to both scientific and local goals. The local aims of engaging young people and preserving the site sold the project to supporters on the local level. The scientific goals overlapped with those in many ways in that we wanted to generate new information about pre-contact history and culture of the Yup’ik, but also to evaluate the impact of rising sea levels on the cultural resources in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and develop locally based expertise and facilities to address those impacts. Also important was the creation of new educational and economic opportunities for the people of Quinhagak and the surrounding region and provide training and experience in community-based archaeological research for a new generation of scientists, land managers, and community leaders.

Each excavation season is planned by the archaeological team in consultant with the leadership and staff of Qanirtuuq Inc. Any major decisions are run by the corporation board as well as though the board of Quinhagak Heritage, Inc., a nonprofit organization set up to cast a wider net for outside funding and manage the planned culture center that would one day hold the collections. The challenging logistics of servicing a research crew of up to 50 people over one season is coordinated and provided by Qanirtuuq Inc. The field crew is headed by archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen but made up of students and volunteers from the public, as well as locally from the village. Our crew tends to be international with as many as ten nations represented by participants in a typical field season. Over the years, a number of professional archaeologists and conservators have also volunteered their time to the project. Most pay for their own travel to Quinhagak as well as room and board costs, which go to the village. It is the time and dedication contributed by these volunteers, coupled with the strong local and logistical support that make this project possible.

Every season the lead archaeologists meet with Qanirtuuq board representatives to inform on the archaeological progress and to discuss project developments. Any major decision is anchored with the board and sustained by a board meeting. These decisions include sampling procedures and the research on, and publication of, potentially sensitive material. For example, sampling and research on human hair for isotopic and DNA studies have been approved by the board and supported in written agreements. Scientific papers on the project are sent to Qanirtuuq Inc. for review before publication.

Excavations at Nunalleq have revealed a multiperiod, semisubterranean dwelling where three separate occupation phases can be identified (Fig. 2), marked by periods of abandonment or significant architectural remodeling. A series of 14C dates, refined by Bayesian modeling, suggest the main occupation of the site date between ca. AD 1570 and 1675 (Ledger et al. 2018). The site has a complex stratigraphy characterized by structural and architectural wood, sod walls, occupational floors, and living surfaces. Several floor deposits laminated within each occupation phase allow for a detailed interpretation of the site. Preservation of organic material is exceptional, and even grass artifacts in the form of thousands of pieces of cordage, basketry, and woven mats have survived. About 80% of the artifact assemblage is made from organic materials, mostly wood but also including materials rarely encountered in other sites such as feathers, grass, leather, gut skin, coprolites, human hair, animal fur, claws, and more.

Figure 2.

Schematic stratigraphic diagram showing the relationship between Nunalleq occupation phases.

The site is located on a slightly higher elevation (<30 cm) above the surrounding low-lying wetland tundra. Environmental data suggests human activity started at this location as soon as the site was dry enough for occupation (Ledger 2018). The site was advantageously located by the sea with close access to a major salmon stream, factors that probably contributed to the relatively high status of the settlement as suggested by the artifact assemblages (Masson-MacLean et al. n.d.).

The chronological sequence of structures suggests an interesting architectural development, most likely a response to changing social circumstances, possibly induced by climatic changes (cf. Masson-MacLean 2018). The first structure (Phase IV) built at the site follows the pattern of a classic cruciform Thule-style house: a semisubterranean sod house resting on sturdy timber frame in a dug-out house pit, a central room with side rooms organically added. This structure is then abandoned for a shorter time period (Ledger et al. 2018), represented by a thick (up to 20 cm) layer of debris between occupation Phase IV and III.

Reoccupation of the site has been dated to ca. AD 1620–1650 (Ledger et al. 2018:549) when a new house was constructed on the leveled remains of the older Thule-style house. No house pit was dug for the foundation of the second building, which accounts for the undisturbed deposits of the previous house. Two distinct phases of occupation (III & II) can be identified within this structure, separated by major architectural alterations or a remodeling episode.

The layout of the second building clearly differs from the previous one, and appears much different than post-contact Yup’ik sod houses (Fienup-Riordan 2007), constituting communal dwelling space. According to Yup’ik oral history (Fienup-Riordan and Rearden 2016), these communal sod house complexes were a means to defend against attack during a period known from oral history as the bow-and-arrow-wars. Indeed, the structure at Nunalleq (Phase II) came to a disastrous end, when the building was burned down following an attack, evidenced in charring of the collapsed roof structure and interior floorboards, and a large concentration of slate arrow endblades. The assault on Nunalleq is dated somewhere between AD 1645 and 1675 (Ledger et al. 2018).

After the violent end of Nunalleq, the site was permanently abandoned, but it was not forgotten, and the events we observed in the archaeological record are well remembered in local oral history. According to these accounts, the village of Arolik was attacked in summer, everyone in the village was killed, and the village burned. In an attempt to save their children, the mothers dressed up their boys in their finest garments and offered them to the attackers in the hope that they would be spared, but the attackers killed them even so. Some people tried to hide in the tunnels, but they were found and killed, and the dead were thrown into a lake. “So it was that the Kinak warriors wiped out the entire village of Arolic” (Pleasant 1981). The similarities between the events described in oral history and the archaeological remains are striking.

The event, as is also indicated by oral history, claimed multiple victims. When the first human remains on the site were discovered in 2012 they were unexpected, but already agreed protocols for dealing with human remains were followed with community representatives and elders consulted immediately—and it was decided that, since the remains were clearly not part of a burial and in danger of being eroding onto the beach within the next decade, they should be documented and then reburied as soon as possible. The remains were carefully excavated, and after on-site recording and recovering, turned over to the corporation. They were reburied within days on a location unknown to the archaeologists. A larger concentration of human remains, victims of the warfare between villages that ended Nunalleq, were first discovered in 2014, just outside the eastern outer wall close to the main entrance of the building. These were clearly victims of warfare and not a burial. Several individuals had been treated with apparent contempt, tied with grass ropes and killed where they lay. One individual had been partially beheaded, with the broken knife left embedded between neck vertebrae (McManus-Fry n.d.).

Following these discoveries, a more detailed procedure for dealing with the human remains, meeting both scientific and communal needs, was developed by the researchers and Qanirtuuq Inc. in consultation with local decision makers and culture-bearers. The remains were then excavated in 2015 by a dedicated two-person team led by an osteologist. Only documentary photography was allowed, and then only by the team dealing with the human remains. Each individual was recovered within one day from initiating excavation and was returned to the village, where they were studied and recorded by the osteologist. Human remains were kept separate from the rest of the finds in a special room, and access was restricted. Within three days from recovery, the remains were handed over to village officials for reburial in a location unknown to the research team.

The Nunalleq Project combines locally based traditional knowledge with academic research methods to reconstruct the prehistoric roots of modern Yup’ik culture. Much of the Nunalleq assemblage dates from the 17th century, some 300 years before Yup’ik ethnographic materials began to be collected, but large portions of the collection are very similar to these early post-contact ethnographic collections. With this clear continuity ethnographic sources, as well as the living memory of our elder colleagues in the village, have been very valuable in interpreting the site (Fienup-Riordan et al. 2015). Many artifacts have been identified by elders (Fig. 3) who recognize them from when they were children and often expand upon their use, terminology, and the local availability and location of the various raw materials they were manufactured from. Local ecological and environmental knowledge informs our interpretations of seasonal subsistence practices in the past and helps contextualize the faunal assemblages (cf. Masson-MacLean 2018). Scientific and local knowledge and ways of knowing have thus been effectively combined to build our understanding of Nunalleq. The collaboration between the community members and archaeologists has formed the way archaeology is conducted and resulted in a dynamic research process, directing both research questions and research design. The outcome is an enriched and more complex project from both the community and outside scientific perspective.

Figure 3.

Quinhagak elder John Smith holding a kayak model just found by archaeologist Alice Watterson.

Thus, the project fulfills the criteria for participatory action research (cf. McGhee 2012), following a model of collaboration and power-sharing from the outset. However, local representation by community leaders is only the first (albeit essential) step of true community engagement. Wide-ranging community engagement cannot be forced, only encouraged, and it is up to the team to open up different paths to engagement.

Since the first year of excavation, volunteers from the village have participated in the excavation and assisted in the field lab, and when excavation overlaps with the school term, classes regularly come down to visit the site. Several workshops, aimed especially at children, using the archaeological material as inspiration for creative activities have been arranged over the duration of the project (e.g., O’Rourke et al. 2018), and sessions teaching archaeology in the local school and lab weeks for children during the summer have also been arranged. At the end of every field season we have organized informal workshops displaying hundreds of the more spectacular and interesting finds of the season, where community members who have not had the opportunity to visit the site can share in the excitement of discovery (Fig. 4), engage with elders and archaeologists and share their own interpretations, thoughts, and stories (Hillerdal 2017). These “show-and-tell” sessions are an annual community event that anchors the project in the village and have generated increasing interest from the community each year. This demonstrates the power artifacts have as nodal points for creating heritage networks. The combined accessibility and tangibility of artifacts invites interaction, and the objects have become a key point of engagement with Yup’ik culture (Hillerdal 2018:378–380). The Nunalleq collection is now seen as an important cultural asset to the village and the summer excavations a part of the seasonal fabric of village life.

Figure 4.

Rick Knecht showing finds from Nunalleq to Quinhagak residents at the yearly “show and tell” in 2015. Photo credit to Erik Hill, used with permission from Alaska Dispatch News.

The Nunalleq site is located on Native-owned land, and the archaeological material is the property of the village corporation Qanirtuuq Inc., which is owned and operated by the people of Quinhagak. Until this year, following each field season, the artifacts and bio-samples have been shipped to the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, where they have been on loan for the purpose of conservation, curation, and research.

While the intention always was to return the collection to Alaska, a number of options for long-term curation had been under discussion for several years, with the established museums in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Bethel, and their already-developed facilities to care for archaeological materials, being the most evident options (see Fienup-Riordan et al. 2015:67). However, as time went on the general feeling from both the village and archaeologists working on the project has been that the collection belongs in Quinhagak, and following a meeting between the board of Qanirtuuq Inc. and lead archaeologist Rick Knecht in the summer of 2016, the final decision was taken to return the collection to Quinhagak, where it was to be housed in a purpose-built culture center and archaeological repository. Since then, the new cultural center, a reconditioned preschool building moved across the village to its present site, has been finalized and equipped for the purpose by Qanirtuuq Inc., using museum-grade paneling and other materials—a considerable investment from the corporation.

In the summer of 2018, the collection was returned to Quinhagak, to the newly dedicated Nunalleq Culture and Archaeology Center. The facility had been field tested beginning with the 2017 field season material, which was processed, conserved, and curated on location in Quinhagak. Now only the most fragile artifacts, mostly the grass basketry, is still being sent back to Aberdeen for expert conservation, but soon that too will be curated by the community, with technical training and advice from the University of Aberdeen. Thus, with the collection back in Quinhagak, the Yup’ik community will be true custodians of their archaeological heritage and claim full ownership of their local precontact history—fully empowered to cultivate heritage values not imposed by outsiders but felt and embraced by all.

The impact of this is considerable; the Nunalleq Center will be the first village-based archaeological repository in the YK region of around 56 villages. Stakeholders will be able to access the Nunalleq collection, by far the best source for information about precontact Yup’ik culture available anywhere. Visiting researchers can in turn study a collection located in its geographical and cultural context. The cultural center is intended to function as a community space for cultural activities and a facilitator for engagement in Yup’ik culture, as well as an educational space and archaeological repository. The Nunalleq Center is the only conservation laboratory available for saving archaeological materials outside a major city in Alaska, and the ambition is that the center will work as a local facility for treating material from other threatened sites in the YK Delta.

The Culture Center is managed and operated by the nonprofit organization Quinhagak Heritage Inc. (QHI). QHI was formed following the first few years of excavation with the purpose to “centralize all of previous, current, and future cultural preservation activities and programs into one focused, comprehensive program to restore our Yup’ik culture and traditions. QHI will look at preservation from a holistic perspective when developing the long-term goals and work plans” (Quinhagak Heritage Inc. mission statement). QHI and the Nunalleq Culture and Heritage Center are results of the long-term commitment of Quinhagak to be the custodians of their archaeological heritage.

Nunalleq: A Threatened Site

The Nunalleq site is situated where the tundra meets the Bering Sea, and it has already been and continues to be, heavily impacted by climate change. The site was first identified when cultural deposits were seen eroding onto the beach, and when excavation first began in 2009, it was assumed that most of the site had already washed away. Rescue excavations were carried out in 2009 and 2010 by the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, UK, which were largely funded by the Native village corporation Qanirtuuq Inc. with contribution from the University of Aberdeen towards travels and expenses for the professional archaeologists.

By the end of the 2010 season, it was clear that the site was far more extensive than first thought and that well-preserved, but threatened, deposits extended inland onto the tundra. Following this realization decision was made to develop the project into a large-scale research excavation.

The YK Delta consists of mainly flat tundra and wetlands resting on glacial silts and alluvial sediments. In addition to the larger rivers, small river systems, streams, lakes, and ponds characterize a low-lying landscape where open waters occupy much of the land. The coast is fronted by large alluvial pod delta and tidal mudflats extending along the sea. On these shorelines, silt and clays can erode very rapidly. A severe storm can take several meters of shoreline in a single event (Dupre 1978; Shaw 1983:10). Thawing permafrost greatly accelerates the erosion of the tundra beach-front, and additionally, when dried out, the silt is very flighty, making the beachline very susceptible to erosion.

Regular surveys undertaken by the Nunalleq crew in the area have proved that sites in this wet tundra environment can be extremely hard to identify from the surface, and what permafrost remains can often impede subsurface testing. So far, locating cultural material exposed by active erosion faces has been the fastest and most reliable method to locate threatened sites. Such a discovery led to last-minute changes of the excavation plan in 2013 when exposed cultural layers were detected in the erosion face just north of the excavation block, leading to the decision to open up a second excavation unit (Area B). This situation highlights the extreme urgency of southwestern Alaska coastal archaeology, as it is elsewhere in the north (cf. Hollesen et al. 2018). Recent climate change is not only threatening the traditional subsistence livelihoods and infrastructure of indigenous populations but is exposing archaeological sites previously preserved by permafrost all along the coastline. Even for sites not immediately threatened by erosion, higher temperature, and melting permafrost means that hitherto preserved organic remains begin to rot in the ground (see Matthiesen et al. 2014).

Since 2012, six more excavation seasons have taken place with support from a £1.1-million research grant ($1.75 million US) from the UK based Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), and it has resulted in the largest collection of precontact Yup’ik artifacts ever recovered and archaeological data of unprecedented quality. The high level of preservation of organic material has meant we are able to recover biological material for scientific analysis, such as hair and fur samples for isotopic and DNA studies (Britton et al. 2013; Britton et al. 2016; Britton et al. 2018; McManus-Fry et al. 2018; Raghavan et al. 2014), insects, plant macrofossils, and pollen (Forbes et al. 2015; Forbes et al. submitted; Ledger 2018; Ledger et al. 2016). The Nunalleq site is a unique resource for both scientists and our Yup’ik partners, but the work has entailed a constant battle with natural forces that threaten the site. Since 2009, the erosion face along the site’s edge has retreated inland more than 10 m. The 2009 and 2010 excavation blocks are now entirely gone. At the end of every field season, measures are taken to protect the site from the forces of nature (Fig. 5), but we are acutely aware and constantly reminded of the vulnerable location of the site. At the time of writing this in December 2017, two severe storms with waves as high as 3 m above the high-tide line, have hit and flooded the site already this winter. We could still lose much of the remaining site in a single storm.

Figure 5.

Wall of sandbags build up against the erosion phase to protect the Nunalleq site from winter storms after closing the site in 2017.

Climate Change and Heritage in Alaska

Even though the Arctic and the indigenous peoples of the region are being highlighted in climate debates, indigenous perspectives have not been given much consideration in national and international climate change assessments (cf. Crate and Nuttall 2016:13). Where indigenous people are considered “assessments have been largely about indigenous people, not by them” (Cochran et al. 2013:558). Lately, climate change research has realized the importance of a local perspective. Local people, especially people with an intimate knowledge of local ecology, microclimate and weather patterns contribute data on a more detailed level that generalized models cannot provide (cf. Déri and Sundaresan 2015). It has even been pointed out that the lack of scientific long-term climatic data from the Arctic can be compensated by indigenous deep-time knowledge encoded in the oral record to fill in the gaps (Marino and Schweitzer 2016:210). However, the contribution of local and indigenous people into climate research is potentially much more impactful than that of an informant. It has been recognized that a holistic perspective, amalgamating human and ecology, often represented in indigenous worldviews, is an important complement to western, more-compartmentalized scientific approaches to climate research (Cochran et al. 2013:559). With this recognition, it follows that indigenous communities should be involved in designing climate-change solutions appropriate for their community, its unique goals, and visions for the future (Behe and Daniel 2018:160). Policies and procedures need to be responsive to local observations and needs, if they are to be appropriate and successful (Cochran et al. 2013:562–564). Scientists across the Arctic are increasingly working with indigenous communities to codesign research schemes (Krupnik and Jolly 2002). Indigenous traditional knowledge has emerged in national and international arenas as a source of rich information for indigenous and nonindigenous climate assessments, policies, and adaptation strategies (Bennett et al. 2014:301), which highlights a need to build collaborative community-based research models melding scientific and indigenous knowledge (Henshaw 2016).

In a similar spirit, community-based archaeo-logical projects, such as the Nunalleq Project, have added a crucial local-Native perspective to archaeological research. As a region severely affected by global warming, and with vast archaeologically undocumented territories seeing these effects, Alaska calls for climate research and archaeology to work together on a local level (for similar initiatives in North America see Friesen 2015; Hare et al. 2004; Jensen 2012; Lyons 2013) and to highlight the archaeological heritage of Alaska as threatened by climate change—coastal erosion and thawing permafrost, in particular.

Climate change threatens tangible and intangible cultural values, as well as subsistence, infrastructure, and economic values. Heritage may be seen as counteractive in climate discourse, as heritage is generally associated with conservation, whilst adaptation to a changing climate craves innovation (Deri and Sundaresan 2015:83), but it has been claimed that heritage development can be important for creating community resilience, obviously an important tool to have in the face of climate change (Laven 2015). It is important to emphasize that heritage is never static, but a dynamic expression of cultural values felt by members of a community (cf. Perry and Harvey 2015:274). “A new view of heritage, serving society in times of rapid climate change, embraces loss, alternative forms of knowledge and alternative futures” (Harvey and Perry 2015:3). Full engagement with, and deployment of, the power inherent in heritage and cultural values can thus be a key resource for communities facing the severe changes to their way of life that are very real to many coastal communities in Alaska (cf. Carmichael et al. 2018): “community empowerment that results from exploring, articulating, and understanding their region’s heritage” (Laven 2015:170), and this is exactly what we have seen happen in Quinhagak.

In other parts of the world, local peoples and heritage professionals are already working together to safeguard coastal sites under threat from climate change. An example of this is the Scottish charity organization SCAPE (Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion), which are working with professional archaeologists to monitor and safeguard threatened sites along the Scottish coast. Local community engagement provides continuity and stability reaching far beyond the professional capacity, and contribute to update and refine data (Dawson 2015; cf. Hollesen et al. 2018:581). It is also recognized that involving communities in the research process not only contribute data but also increases local interest and engagement in the heritage sites.

Community projects at threatened heritage sites bring more benefit than the simple recording of heritage; they raise awareness about threatened sites through joint action that brings together people from across the community (Dawson 2015:264f).

Examples from a protocol developed for indigenous heritage sites in Australia show that community-based, “bottom-up” approaches can be valuable in monitoring and evaluating potentially threatened sites even in remote areas where resources are limited (Carmichael et al. 2018). Even though conditions are very different in Alaska, setting up a similar program could be an additional way forward for archaeology in the region, to aid in identifying, recording, and monitoring potential sites under threat.

Concluding Remarks

Since no systematic survey of the Southwest coast of Alaska has been undertaken, it is impossible to accurately estimate the number of sites under direct threat by coastal erosion and other climate effects, but it seems safe to assume that number is significant. It is equally safe to state that the few professional archaeologists working in Alaska have no chance of even beginning to assess these, much less address the damage, without local support.

Ironically, despite endangering the archaeological heritage of Alaska, climate change might also provide an opportunity for archaeology in the region, in that it brings Alaskan archaeology into focus. Eroding sites and artifacts emerging from their protective seal of permafrost highlight an urgent need for actions to safeguard archaeological sites, and it may even prove the incentive needed to prompt collaborative projects between indigenous and local communities and archaeologist.

Nunalleq has proven that the most efficient, and probably the only sustainable, way to safeguard threatened archaeological heritage is to fully and honestly involve and engage the local community. The interest generated from this community project has already led neighboring villages to contact Quinhagak for advice on how to set up similar projects of their own. The Nunalleq Project and the fantastic archaeological collection it has produced have sparked an interest in archaeology, previously absent in the region. Key to this interest is a combination of direct engagement and power sharing in all aspects of the work—highlighting that an archaeological project is important to a community only as long as it concerns them. It should be the task of any archaeological project to address both scientific and local community priorities. Indigenous communities and archaeologists are natural and the most effective allies in the race to preserve our collective heritage from the threats posed by global warming.


This research founded through an Arts and Humanities Research Council grant (AH/K006029/1) awarded to the authors and Dr. Kate Britton. Excavations at Nunalleq has also been supported by Qanirtuuq Inc. and the University of Aberdeen. This work would not be possible without the enthusiastic support from Quinhagak, for which we are very grateful. Finally, we would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for constructive criticism that has helped improve this manuscript.

References Cited