Many of the artifacts recovered from the Nunalleq site are made from antler, wood, and ivory, materials that are preserved under the tundra but decay quickly after exposure.

Deadly historic ambush preserved in Alaskan permafrost

Frozen earth protected evidence of an attack some 400 years ago at Nunalleq, but warming temperatures threaten Alaskan sites still holding its buried history.

History at risk

Many of the artifacts recovered from the Nunalleq site are made from antler, wood, and ivory, materials that are preserved under the tundra but decay quickly after exposure.
Kieran Dodds/National Geographic Image Collection

The archaeological site of Nunalleq on the southwest coast of Alaska pre­serves a fateful moment, frozen in time. The muddy square of earth is full of everyday things that the In­digenous Yup’ik people used to survive and to celebrate life here, all left just as they lay when a deadly attack came almost four centuries ago.

As is often the case in archaeology, a tragedy of long ago is a boon to modern science. Ar­chaeologists have recovered 100,000 artifacts at Nunalleq, from typical eating utensils to ex­traordinary things such as wooden ritual masks, ivory tattoo needles, pieces of finely calibrated sea kayaks, and a belt of caribou teeth. Beyond the sheer quantity and variety, the objects are astonishingly well preserved, having been frozen in the ground since about 1660.

The ground’s frigid state even preserved rare organic material such as grass ropes, salmon­ berry seeds, and grass strands woven into baskets. “This grass was cut when Shake­speare walked the Earth,” observed lead archaeol­ogist Rick Knecht, of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

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