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The tundra reveals its secrets…

July 9, 2019

Greetings from sunny Alaska! Spirits are very high here at camp despite the horrendously warm weather, and we are all very much looking forward to an amazing field season here at Quinhagak.

My name is Jonathan Lim. Regular readers of this blog may recognize me from previous field seasons manning the total station, or from that time “Batman” Watterson helped me to drain my tundra-hole. The excavation at the Nunalleq site has been a huge part of my life since 2015, and I am thrilled to be taking on a more active role with updating this blog and with planning our fieldwork this summer.

I will be a DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford starting this October, and my research interest is in “archaeological prospection”, which is loosely defined as the fine art of finding undiscovered archaeological sites using traditional and electronic techniques. Unfortunately, given the devastating effects of climate change in the region, there is now an urgency to discover new sites and investigate them before they are lost forever. Although our emphasis this year will be on cataloguing our collections, I will also be carrying out an archaeological survey of the surrounding tundra with the help of our intrepid volunteers and field school students!

A sod house

A reconstruction of a sod house at the Alaska Native Heritage Centre, with me for scale.

However, before such a survey can take place, it is often necessary to visit known archaeological sites to get a sense of what these abandoned settlements may have looked like in the landscape. To this end, we made a flying visit yesterday to Agaligamiute, a historic Yup’ik sod-house village of 94 people recorded in the US census of 1890 near the mouth of the Arolik River. It was probably abandoned shortly after this date, and its former location is recorded on USGS maps from the 1950’s.

We parked our van near Nunalleq and made the short hike to down the beach in the sweltering heat. Upon our arrival, I was taken aback at how… flat everything seemed. At eye-level there was not a single visual indication that this was once a thriving village of almost a hundred people. However, our drone footage and satellite imagery told a different story…

DCIM100MEDIADJI_0003.JPGsatellite(Top) A drone photograph showing the former location of the village. Vegetation changes in circular patterns may represent the remains of sod-built structures. (Below) The same vegetation changes are visible on high-resolution satellite imagery.

This really drives home the difficulty of archaeological prospection in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Ground surveys are essential, but they must be augmented with information from a variety of sources, including aerial photography, satellite remote sensing, and local knowledge and oral histories.

We also stumbled upon something quite baffling a short distance north of Agaligamiute. Seemingly in the middle of nowhere, we found an almost perfectly square 2.5m x 2.5m pit that was 30cm deep. The journey back to camp was enlivened by a heated discussion as to what this hole represented. I must confess that the word ‘aliens’ was brought up more than once. Thankfully, village Elder John Smith would come to our rescue as he has done countless times before, suggesting that the pit represented the remains of a fish storage cache, much like the ones he had seen in his childhood.

Yesterday was a most auspicious start to what I hope is a season of exciting new discoveries out in the tundra. Thanks for reading, and do check back soon for updates on our progress! I would also like to use this opportunity to thank the Keble Association and Prof. Raoul Franklin of Keble College for funding my research and travels this summer.


Photo by Jonathan Lim

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