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.