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News from the field

February 2, 2016

Since August I had been dreaming of going back to Quinhagak. Earlier in January, my dream came true: I was lucky to visit the village and see our site hibernating in the winter.

It was so cold that even the sun put its mittens on:
The cold vastness of Alaskan tundra was breathtaking…
…and even familiar scenes and landscapes seemed unfamiliar in this frozen stillness….
But do you recognise this square?
Warren and I went to the site on January 18th and were so glad to see that the recent storms caused no damage to Nunalleq! Though the site looked different—cold and sorta abundant,—it had been intact since we left.IMG_0573
The site was backfilled and covered with some plastic in mid-August; during the autumn months it got filled with rainwater. So now, the square is covered with ice and resembles a big skating rink. Rick says that the cold and ice create a great protection for the site keeping the bugs off. And definitely make it look gorgeous:
Seems like our site is being regularly visited by some tundra inhabitants:
… I have hardly seen anything more beautiful than the frozen Bering Sea:
Until further notice. Can’t wait for the new digging season to begin.

Congratulations Dr McManus! The first Nunalleq Project PhD student successfully defends!

August 28, 2015

Dr. McManus in the field

I am very happy to blog that, after years of hard work in the lab and the field, on Monday 24th August, isotope specialist and field team regular, Ellen McManus, successfully passed her PhD oral examination at the University of Aberdeen. Congratulations Ellen!

This event was cause for extra celebration as Ellen is the first doctoral student from the Nunalleq Project to complete her PhD. Her thesis entitled ‘Pre-contact ecology, subsistence and diet, on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta’ is an innovative study that integrates zooarchaeology with stable isotope techniques, to reconstruct past Alaskan foodwebs and to examine faunal palaeoecology at the site. The examiners had many complimentary things to say about Ellen’s work, particularly her research into the dogs found at Nunalleq and the ecosystem changes that have occurred over the centuries since the site was first inhabited.

Themed cakes might just have to become a tradition for the new PhDs of Nunalleq!

The viva, which is the UK equivalent of a defense, lasted several hours, after which Ellen was awarded a pass with only minor corrections. Family, faculty and friends, including members of the Nunalleq team already back in Aberdeen (and those of us who never left!) were on hand to celebrate with Ellen – which included pizza and an animals-of-Nunalleq theme cake!

Congratulations again Dr. McManus! The question is: who’s next?!


More reports from the site

August 20, 2015

Nunalleq features in KYUK Public Media

Nunalleq in Archaeology Sept/Oct Issue

August 19, 2015

The Nunalleq project features in a large article in this moths edisiton of the Archaeology Magazine


Nunalleq Summer 2015

August 19, 2015

See a report from this summers excavation on Alaska Public Media. Featuring Dr. Rick Knecht

Thanks to the Lab Assistants!

August 15, 2015
  • IMG_0292Thanks to all the lab assistants who helped sort a bulk sample associated with a basket excavated on the last hour of the last day: Valerie
  • Brian
  • Charlene
  • Suzy
  • Daryl
  • Mikaela
  • Mike
  • Annalise
  • Sam
  • Erik

Who did I forget?  Write me a comment and I will add your name to the list.  Also write me if I misspelled your name.

MM and Valerie


Supporting the University of Oregon: Go Ducks!

What did the kids find?

We found salmon vertebrae and ribs and spines; we found salmonberry seeds and fish scales.  Fish scales are very hard to spot…great job! One young analyst found a fish bone that is definitely NOT salmon– it is one that we will have to figure out with a comparative collection at the University of Oregon or University of Aberdeen.

Thank you for eagle-eyed assistance!  We appreciate it.

Madonna L. Moss

Mapping Nunalleq

August 14, 2015

IMG_4946With so many spectacular artifacts coming from the excavation of Nunalleq every day, it easy to gloss over the duller topics of excavation: what it is and why it has to be done a certain way. I love archaeological excavation and so it pains me to say this, but excavation is a destructive process. When we trowel down through the different contexts we are removing the site and it will no longer be in the ground for others to learn from. This is why excavation has to be done in a well-documented way. We need to convert the site from a physical deposit in the ground into records like photographs, maps, and standardized notes. Archaeologists have a responsibility to ensure these records are accurate and informative so others can use the records in the future to continue to learn from the site, even after it has been excavated.

As it is destructive, sometimes the decision is made to not excavate a site and leave it in the ground. This may be because it is important to the local community that the site be left undisturbed or maybe there isn’t sufficient time or funds to do a proper job of the excavation.

One factor considered by the community and the archaeologists when making the decision to excavate Nunalleq has been the coastal erosion. If you’ve explored the blog, you’ve likely read about the increasingly warmer winters in Quinhagak, the loss of permafrost, the resulting soil instability, and the risk of losing the site to the sea with one big storm. This risk is real and so the team is in a bit of a race against nature and time to learn as much about the site as possible before the seemingly inevitable happens.

One tool in efficiently and accurately documenting the excavation at Nunalleq is the total station. It is used to record all sorts of location information, both horizontal and vertical (for example, where artifacts are found within the site, where samples of hair and soil are collected, and the depths of different levels).

There are different ways of recording this information. When I attended my first archaeology field school we were taught to use a theodolite and used measuring tapes, strings, line levels and plumb-bobs to map artifact locations. This was labor-intensive and time consuming. The total station we use at Nunalleq only needs two people; one person holds the prism and the other aims the total station at the prism and then records the artifact’s location in its internal memory.


When an artifact is found through troweling, its location is marked with a small flag for mapping with the total station. As the excavation progresses into the undisturbed house floors, more artifacts are found and very quickly the site turns into a sea of fluttering flags. For this reason, there is usually a designated “total station team” on site.

In the morning, the team sets the total station up on its tripod and levels it over a datum. They program the total station so it “knows” where it is and what direction it’s facing, and then it is ready for a busy day of shooting in points. Once set up, an artifact’s location can be recorded in seconds and at the end of the day it takes only a few minutes to bring all the information into a computer program to make maps of the site.

In our race against nature and time, the total station is a valuable member of the crew. Not only does it free up people and time for excavation, but its high-powered lens can also be used to confirm that bushes moving on the horizon are not bears, watch ships at sea, or check the cleanliness of the archaeologists’ ears from across the site (not recommended).



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