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Sunburning in Nunalleq

July 31, 2014

After some hick-ups with the internet connection, we are finally able to give news from Quinhagak. A lot has happened since last Monday: the crew has doubled in size, we have exposed the burnt level (formed by the violent event that destroyed the settlement) across the entire new area of the excavation, and have just started to dip into the artefact-packed house floors.Teresa, who had the ungrateful job of digging through an unusual deposit – a seemingly unending mat of sphagnum moss – in a corner of the site, was finally rewarded with a spectacular find of multiple bentwood vessels and a few other wonderfully preserved wooden objects. Cheryl spent her morning helping to dig these up – it is a shame that Jack and Keith just missed this after all the earth moving they shouldered. Next time, perhaps.


The top of burnt layer (the carbonised remains of sod walls and roofs of houses) has also provided some important finds: a large number of projectile points (this is, after all, the Bow and Arrow Wars period) as well as large fragments of pottery, including a complete vessel, which smashed against the collapsing architecture. We have lifted the pot and surrounding soil as a block for excavation and reconstruction in the lab. We are hoping that it may still preserve part of its contents, as the soil inside it seem to be different from the deposit in which it was found. The shape and decoration (a single ridge encircling the vessel) is typical of the pottery from this period at Nunalleq and other western and south-western Alaskan sites, as mentioned in an earlier post on this blog.

IMG_4297 Pottery vessel

Meantime, Véro has laid out her bug traps (more on that soon), and James and I have visited a few more places, continuing the survey, which combines various aspects: the mapping of vegetation units, the identification of occurrences of clay-rich sediments and the test pitting for other potential archaeological sites. All of this information will help us understand the landscape history of the area, including the formation processes responsible for the sediments of this part of Alaska, and characterise the available raw materials for pottery making in the past, as well as the habitats in which the bugs Véro will use as climatic and environmental indicators live. It also aids in targeting areas of older, more stable sediments where archaeological sites are more likely to be located (or to have been preserved).

This morning, Mike took James and I a few miles up the Kanektok River. While we worked, Mike kept a well trained eye out for bears and taught us much about plants and their traditional uses, both as food and medicine. We picked up an almost complete skeleton of a salmon, the remains of a bear’s meal, to add to Edouard’s reference collection. According to Mike, the vestiges of dry meat close to the central bone indicate that the fish was already partly dry, which suggest he stole it from one of the multiple drying racks where people lay out their catch to dry around the smoke houses. This is salmon fishing season and most households are busy processing large quantities of fish. We were gifted a bag of smoked salmon strips a couple of days ago – a Yup’ik delicacy that is incredibly tasty, with quite a delicate flavour.

We expect the weather to turn to its usual arctic temperatures and humidity from tomorrow – no more of this almost Mediterranean summer, which has resulted in some unexpected tans and sunburns. Back to waterproofs!



Area C yesterday afternoon, before 100 buckets (or almost 2000 litres) of soil were removed and screened.


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