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End of excavation 2017

August 22, 2017

The excavation season in Nunalleq is now officially ended. Our last day of digging was Friday, and Saturday was spent trimming and straightening the walls of the excavation trench. Despite our very long hours on site the last week, we did not reach our goal, which was to reach natural and close this part of the site for good. The reason for this ‘failure’ is that the early house we have been excavating this season was much more substantial than our expectations – based on the test-pits we did in 2015. We have detected at least five different occupation periods in this early house (further analysis of the results will clarify this), in a very substantial and deep stratigraphy. In the end we have more finds, and substantially more contexts than we had in 2015. This shows how much dirt we actually moved this year. The outcome of this years excavation is fantastic – and we have learned a lot about early Yup’ik architecture and culture.

The plan? After covering walls and floor of the trench with tarps and boards it will be back-filled – but only enough to protect the site until next year, when we will be back for a shorter season to finish the last few floors. This time we have a very good grasp of what we are up against, we have reached natural in enough places all over the site to be able to predict what is left – the last house floor is protected under a rather substantial clay/sod leveling. It is also very likely that we will find a few more storage pits – this season we have excavated two large storage pits that were dug straight into natural, and was hidden under the floors. Parts of a drainage system has also been uncovered – the very first thing installed before the house was erected it seems like. This is consistent with results we had in 2012 – when our small 4x16m excavation block just south of the one we had open this year was taken down to natural. However, three weeks excavation time next year will also allow time for us to properly excavate the walls, and see the very first steps in building a Yup’ik mudhouse.

I left the site already on Friday morning (after making a sketch of the whole site so we know our starting point for next season), and the last work on site was done by Rick, Anna, Sandra, Cheryl, Lise and Jackie, who joined us from the Village. The following pictures and captions are all from Rick.


20882675_1636376136397315_2140262494791087406_n (1)

The second oldest house floor at the site, located nearly two meters under the ground surface. A plank covered bench is visible on the left side of the photo, next to a woven grass mat. Small holes in the grass mat were made by small whittled sticks used to pin the mat in place. If you look closely you can see the outline and edge of a large wooden point sheath which was found tucked under the mat.


The woven grass mat after removal from the house floor. We use large commercial size spatulas to lift and move pieces like this to a piece of museum grade codex. It is then wrapped in clear plastic wrap and refrigerated until it can be treated in the conservation lab.


This is the large point sheath found under the grass mat. These are made in two halves, tied together to protect the edges of pointed projectiles. One this size was probably used for beluga and/or walrus hunting gear.


A doll found by Anna- as it appeared fresh from the dirt. It is painted with red ocher.


This leister/bird spear was found with one of it’s three antler prongs still hafted in place. An addition prong was also found nearby. The prongs fit into narrow slots carved into the ocher painted wooden shaft. This is the first one we ever found hafted – although we have both shaft and prongs before – and it shows us how this technology worked.


An ivory toggle carved into the shape of a bird’s head.



Sandra with another important find, this time a model of an open skin boat. Most of the models and boat parts we find represent kayaks, however umiaks were definitely also being used by the prehistoric residents of Nunalleq.


Just centimeters from very bottom of the cultural deposits at the site, we found this pair of unusual dolls, one male, the other female, made from baleen. In Yup’ik artistic tradition, frowning figures are said to represent females, while males are generally depicted with smiles. This find indicates that this tradition might have existed centuries before contact with western culture.

20881980_1637617659606496_1665428802343476119_nNunalleq crew on the last full day of excavating in 2017. Our best find this day was actually the bottom of the site, which we will date with caribou bone, which we have found is a more reliable material for C14 dating than wood, grass or charcoal.

20915470_1638501146184814_2916981796366502107_nBefore backfilling Nunalleq for the year we were checking for artifacts on the surface of the block that might get damaged and decided to remove the rim of a bentwood bowl which turned out to be a complete vessel. Here Lise is cleaning it for a photograph.


A closer view of the complete bentwood bowl recovered. The exterior is painted with red ocher.

20988483_1639553286079600_447868578891511102_oThe last few artefacts from Nunalleq this year were from cleaning the profile walls of the excavation. This cut piece of seal skin still has the fur attached.

20988954_1639554869412775_5081076316948017286_oAnother piece from the Nunalleq profile wall. It isn’t very well preserved by Nunalleq standards, but is nevertheless a remarkable tool. It is an elaborately carved handle out of caribou antler, inset with 12 tiny wooden cylinders. The business end of this tool is a small wooden foreshaft that plugs into a hole at the end of the handle. The foreshaft is tipped with a tiny piece of metal, probably for fine engraving of ivory, tattooing or other exacting work. We have one other small metal tipped knife from the site. Metal was obtained centuries before Russian contact from metal nails in Asian driftwood and by trade across the Bering Strait. We will try and source the metal back in Aberdeen.


Nunalleq crew, week 7. Our last day excavating at the site. We had our first frost last night and migrating flocks of geese pass over our heads all day. We straightened a few walls and got this year’s block ready for backfilling even though we are only down to natural in a few squares. Next week we will lay down tarps and plywood so that the remaining house floors stay in good condition until we resume next year.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Marjorie permalink
    August 23, 2017 01:59

    Thrilling and so very moving. Best wishes til next summer,

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