The last three weeks of lab work have been quite intense and we are now starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel (or I should say, the table tops underneath the boxes). We have washed and cleaned well over a thousand sherds and added over 800 new entries to the artefact catalogue. Thanks to the contribution of many of our undergraduate students (thank you!) and, crucially, to the long hours of hard work that Claire and Sandra, our postgraduate and undergraduate lab interns, have been putting in during the Easter break. And all this work is starting to pay off: we are beginning to see how the pottery was distributed across the site and to recognise differences in the size and appearance of the vessels. As it was expected given what happens at other sites from the same period, much of the pottery is plain or decorated with a horizontal ridge placed either below the rim or halfway down the body of the vessel, but other kinds of decoration do also occur, and we have found some beautiful pieces – to the delight of whoever was washing that particular bag of apparently unexciting sherds.
Emma found the thinner-walled decorated sherd on the right last week, on her first day at the lab. You can image her excitement (and everybody else’s as we gathered to admire it).
In addition to the ceramic vessels, the Nunalleq assemblage includes several clay lamps. In fact, their number seems to multiply every week. Although we have recovered mostly fragments, there are a couple of almost complete small, shallow lamps in the collection as well. They are all in a very poor state of preservation, much worse than that of the vessels, so the plan is to select one or two of the best, more complete examples for conservation. So far, we have not found a single decorated clay lamp, which are common in other regions of Alaska, and we have only identified one stone lamp, which Rick had been ‘hiding’ in one of the fridges.
Clay lamp (before conservation) and stone lamp from Nunalleq
The fridges are wonderful and apparently endless worlds of their own – somehow we keep finding more and more of whatever we are studying each time we open them. For example, last Friday we were about to celebrate having almost finished the washing of the pottery when a last look through the fridges ‘just to make sure’ produced not one but five boxes full of sherds and a very substantial part of a vessel, still carefully wrapped in film. It is a great piece, which Sandra and our conservator will be dedicating special attention to in the next few weeks. We will let you know how their work progresses.
Now that the preparations for this summer’s field season are underway, and anticipation for all the new and wonderful things we will be finding this year at Nunalleq is growing, it is perhaps a good time to show you some of the post-excavation work that has been going on during the winter. This is a huge task, given the very large amounts of artefacts recovered and the special conservation needs of the various organic materials (like wood, bark, leather, basketry) as well as some inorganic materials (like ceramics). This year, we have been paying particular attention to the pottery collections, which have been a bit in the background of the project so far. They may seem less exciting than the spectacular wooden masks, dolls, harpoons, ulu blades and mats that have been the ‘poster items’ for Nunalleq. Yet, pottery is an incredible source of information about various aspects of people’s lives: for example, raw materials can tell us about landscape use and exchange, the size and shape of the vessels can provide indications about their function, as can analysis of the organic residues that often adhere to their walls, and the decoration can help us understand people’s identities and social affiliations. This is why I am so interested in the technologies and styles of the pottery from Nunalleq, which I will be studying for the next two years. Working with a well-contextualised, large assemblage from a prehistoric village like this one is a unique opportunity because there are so very few other examples from this part of Alaska.
But before we can proceed with the research, the pottery needs to be cleaned, catalogued and recorded. As we found out when we started opening the almost 80 16-liter boxes overflowing with bags of sherds, many need to be consolidated because they are extremely fragile after having spent several centuries buried in wet, permafrost conditions. The first step was to gather all the pottery stored in the coolers and fridges and beginning the cleaning process. We have a wonderful new lab dedicated to the Nunalleq project, which is where student volunteers have been helping with this huge task – and finding great stuff under all the mud and dirt! We will keep you posted on our progress. Keep checking the blog!
Those browsing the glossy archaeology magazines will find a piece on Nunalleq in the recent issue of Current World Archaeology.
Hello Future Field School Participants!!
We are here to tell you all about the experience of digging at Nunalleq and why you should join us there for the 2014 Field Season! We have been on the Nunalleq excavation for the last two field seasons and want to share with you how amazing the experience is and show you how important your involvement in the project would be.
As you know, Nunalleq is the epitome of a rescue excavation, as each winter more and more of the incredible site erodes into the Bering Sea. Because of this, our efforts to excavate, record and preserve this amazing piece of Alaskan pre-history depend on the number and enthusiasm of our volunteers. At first, traveling all the way to Alaska may seem daunting, and to be honest, when we first went we thought we’d be eaten by bears before we even got close to a trowel. But, in reality the adventure is well worth spending a night curled on an airport bench, and upon arriving in Quinhagak after a beautiful flight across the tundra, we felt immediately welcomed by the friendliness and hospitality of our hosts, and the sight of real beds!
As to be expected on any excavation, hard work is the name of the game, but the wonders of Nunalleq reveal themselves almost immediately, rewarding those efforts. Any regular visitor to our blog has seen the awe-inspiring, perfectly preserved artifacts excavated on a daily basis, but the pictures don’t do justice to the feeling of exposing these incredible pieces to the world for the first time in hundreds of years. Similarly, if environmental archaeology is more your style, the site provides unrivaled preservation of organic remains including human and animal hair, insects, and plants, the recovery of which is contributing to a range of projects looking at the environment and ecology of this pre-historic landscape. Proximity to the local Yup’ik village of Quinhagak provides many opportunities for interaction with the local community, and classes of school children are not only frequent visitors but also helpers at the site. We show them the ins and outs of dirt screening and troweling, and on our off days they take us salmon fishing, berry picking, and show us the beautiful landscape of the Yukon Delta. If you’re lucky, you might even get a chance to drive one of the 4 wheelers, but only if you ask Mike really nicely!
It is not an exaggeration to suggest that working at Nunalleq will be the “dig of a lifetime”, as evidenced by the number of participants who go back year after year, and spend their time out of the field working with the incredible collections. It is also a place where you can create lasting friendships with people from around the world while eating s’mores around a bonfire on the beach by the Bering Sea. So, whether you’re looking for an amazing site to work on, or simply need a reason to check Alaska off your list of visited states, joining us at Nunalleq this summer will be an experience you’ll never forget!
We can’t wait to see you there!!
Ellen & Carly