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RacingtosaveAlaskantreasures

ByAlaskaDispatchNews,adaptedbyNewselastaff

QUINHAGAK,AlaskaScientistsfromaroundtheworldarediggingupartifactsfroman
ancientYupikvillage.IthasbeenfrozeninplaceforhundredsofyearsontheBeringSea
coastofWesternAlaska.
ThescientistsinvolvedsayitisthebiggestdigofYupikartifactsfrombeforeRussiansand
otherEuropeansarrivedintheearly1800s.Inaregionwhereoldtreasuresaremeantto
remainintheground,theYupikpeopleofQuinhagakinvitedthescientistsin.
Why?Becausewehadnothing,saidWarrenJones,presidentofthevillage.Yup'ik
culture,includinglanguageandtraditionaldance,wasdiscouragedbytheMoravianchurch
missionariesandnearlylost,Jonessaid.
Growingup,allIheardaboutwasthechurchstuff,notwhatourancestorsdid,hesaid.
Theyhadstoriesoftheirculture,butnoancientartifactslikeharpoonsorstoneulus(curved
knives).
WorkingTogether,SavingHistory
Theprojectbeganfiveyearsago.Scholars,studentsandQuinhagakvillagersareworking
togethertocarefullytakeapart,documentandsaveartifactsfromahousetheycall
Nunalleq,oroldvillage.
ThisisthefirstexcavationofaYupikhouse,saidleadscientistRickKnecht.
Figuringouttheageofgrassesandberryseedsatthehouseprovidedevidencethat
peoplefirstlivedthereinthe1300s,Knechtsaid.Thenthevillagewasattackedandburned
downaround1640.ItwasdestroyedbyaneighboringsettlementduringtheregionsBow
andArrowWars,hesaid.Thevillagewasabandoned.
Thehousescollapsedinthefireandovertimethesitewashiddeninthetallgrasses.
Atthecenter,scientistssaytheyfoundatraditionallargemenswinterhouse.Smaller
roomsconnectedbycoveredwoodenwalkwayswereaddedovertheyears.Itmayhave
beenawaytobringinandprotectwomenandchildrenduringthevillagewars,the
researcherssay.Traditionally,womenandchildrenlivedseparatelyfromthemen.
FrozenEarthIsGivingWay
Untilthepermafrostbeganmeltingandtheedgeofthetundraerodedintothesea,theold
villagewaswellpreservedinthehardfrozenearth.Evenwoodencookingspoonswere
saved.
Amajorworryisthatchangesinclimatecouldleadto"thelossofculturalheritage,Knecht
said.Becausepeopleliveonthesecoastlinesandthearchaeologicalrecordishere.
Justinthepastfiveyears,30feetattheedgeofthedighasbeenlost.
Itsreallygoingfast,rightinfrontofoureyes,Knechtsaid.Hadtheworknotstartedwhen
itdidin2009,thousandsofartifactsatthisonevillagewouldhavewashedaway.
CollectingArtifactsAndStories
QuinhagaklikelywasoneofdozensofsettlementsintheYukonKuskokwimDeltaatthe
time.Itmayhavebeenquitebig,saidAnnFienupRiordan.Sheisananthropologistwho
hasworkedwiththeYupikpeoplefor40years.
Thediggershavecollectedcloseto50,000artifacts,countingancientanimalbones,bitsof
grassmatsthatcoveredthewalls,andpiecesofwoodentools.Ofthose,asmanyas5,000
arespecialenoughtoshowinamuseum,Knechtsaid.Jonesfavorite:amaskwitha
wolfhumanface,asymboloftransformation.
Theworkhasattractedexpertsinmanyspecialties:potteryandulus,plantsandbugs,dolls
andshamans,bonesandbaskets.
FienupRiordan,theanthropologist,collectedstoriesfromQuinhagakeldersaboutthe
objectsfound.Teammembersbroughtdolls,huntingtools,wovenpiecesandmoreto
elders,whotalkedinYupikaboutthefinds.Oneelder,GeorgePleasant,knewthestone
usedforanulubladebyitscolor.
Ithinkitsthebestthinganybodycameandhelpedusdo,elderAnnieClevelandsaidof
thedig.
Theartifactssupportandadddetailtothestoriesofthevillage,Knechtsaid.
FienupRiordannowhasadateforthestoryofthewar.Whattheelderssayaddsnew
explanation.
Weonlygetoneshotatit,Knechtsaid.TheseareallpagesintheYupikhistorybook.
SharingAncientVillageCulture
Villageleaderstalkingwitheldersmakedecisionswiththescientists:whentodig,howto
preservethesite,whattodowiththefinds.
Recently,thescientistsputthemostinterestingrecoveredobjectsondisplayinthebigred
communitybuildingandinvitedthewholevillagetoseeandtouchthem.Atinyseal
amuletmadeofmammothivory.Woodenmasksthathadbeenbrokeninhalf.Stone
harpoontips.Piecesofmodelkayaksthatshowthehistoryofthedesign.
Atatablewithtinypiecesofcarvedivoryjewelry,JohnSmith,avillagemastercarver,
marveledattheskillofhisancestorsbeforetheyhadelectrictoolsandmetalblades.It
inspiredhimtorecreatesomeofthedesigns.Maybethedigprojectwilldrawvillagekids
awayfromtheirvideogamesandcellphones,hesaid.
BoththescientistsandvillagersinQuinhagaksaytheywanttobuildavillagecultural
center.Itwillshowsomeoftheancienttoolsandart,andprovideaplaceforartistsand
craftsmentoworkandteachothers.
Quinhagakmaybejustthestart,Knechtsaid.OtherancientAlaskavillagesalongthecoast
andonriversareerodingtoo.
Theirstorieshaveyettobeuncovered.

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