Alaska’s Thaw Reveals—and Threatens—a Culture’s Artifacts

Precious items of the Yupik people, long frozen in time, are emerging as temperatures rise. Now the rush is on to save them.

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 Yupik people used to survive and to celebrate life here, all left just as they lay when a deadly attack came almost four centuries ago.

Around the perimeter of what was once a large sod structure are traces of fire used to smoke out the residents—some 50 people, probably an alliance of extended families, who lived here when they weren’t out hunting, fishing, and gathering plants. No one, it seems, was spared. Archaeologists unearthed the remains of someone, likely a woman, who appears to have succumbed to smoke inhalation as she tried to dig an escape tunnel under a wall. Skeletons of women, children, and elders were found together, facedown in the mud, suggesting that they were captured and killed.

As is often the case in archaeology, a tragedy of long ago is a boon to modern science. Archaeologists have recovered more than 2,500 intact artifacts at Nunalleq, from typical eating utensils to extraordinary things such as wooden ritual masks, ivory tattoo needles, 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.

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