Archaeological Dig Near Quinhagak Provides a Look Into Ancient Yup’ik Culture
At the site of an ancient village near Quinhagak, archaeologists race against erosion to uncover Yup’ik artifacts. What they find not only provides a look into the daily lives of Yup’ik ancestors, but also sheds light on a brutal period in the region’s history.
A cold breeze from the Bering Sea sweeps clouds across a tundra hill, upon which sits the ancient village of Araliq. Students and archaeologists are carefully scraping away layers of soil when something catches the attention of the crew.
The abandoned village of Araliq is about 5 miles south of Quinhagak, home of Warren Jones, President of Qanirtuuq Incorporated, the tribal corporation. There was a sense of urgency in 2009, Jones explains, when people first noticed erosion along the shoreline was exposing artifacts. Afraid that the site and its treasures would be lost for good, Jones contacted the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. 5 years later, he says the artifacts are bringing elders stories to life.
“It’s like the elders are saying, in their own way, ‘we told you so.’ Now all the little stories are coming alive,” says Jones.
Today there’s a show and tell of some items excavated from the site at a community building. Quinhagak elder John ‘Aatassuk’ Fox says this about a miniature carving of a human-like face.
“That was made by a shaman. It’s not that way for no reason,” says Fox.
Other elders agree that it might be the case. On display are many variations of household items, tools and jewelry. One item that stands out is a labret, a piece of carved wood or stone that Yup’ik people once wore by inserting them into piercings – men wore two, one along each jawbone while women wore one over their chin.
Other discoveries point to a violent end for the village. Weapons were also found at the site along with a layer of ash, and skeletal remains of humans who seemed to have died in an attack. Rick Knecht is the lead archaeologist on the project. He says the site holds evidence of the warring period known in Yup’ik folklore as ‘the bow and arrow wars.’
“There is a piece of armor that’s derived from Asian samurai armor where there’s these overlapping plates, except its made of antler sewn together. And here’s some more evidence of the ‘bow and arrow wars,’ this is one of the burned arrow points that we found in the ruins of the house. It was fired at somebody in anger. Roof sods and stuff absolutely riddled with those kinds of points. Seventy-five percent of the all the arrow points in that house were found in that upper layer,” says Knecht.
Archeologist say it’s the first tangible evidence of the ‘bow and arrow wars’ or ‘anguyagpallratni,’ as the period is called in Yup’ik. Stories say Araliq residents were massacred in a ferocious attack by the old village of Qinaq, and the village was burned and renamed Araliq. Which means ‘lots of ash’ due to the amount of ash, or ‘araq’ in Yup’ik, which was present on site after the attack. While it’s clear that Araliq’s residents experienced war, archaeologists also discovered signs of everyday life. Ann Riordan was there on behalf of the Calista Elders Council. One of the biggest things that struck her is how similar, yet different, some of the artifacts are to modern tools and crafts used by Yup’ik people today.
“There was an ul’uaq with a little indentation in it, but if you hold it, your thumb just fits in it beautifully. I’ve never seen one like it and it’s made out of stone and wood,” says Riordan.
With climate change causing erosion across much of the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta, Riordan says other communities could carry out similar projects, but the clock is ticking.
“There’s just never been anything this big in our area, and there’s lots and lots of old sites, many other old sites that are being washed away. Many more communities can have this experience,” says Riordan.
Back at the dig site, University of Oregon graduate student Anna Sloan uncovers what instantly has everyone at the dig site smitten.
It’s an ul’uaq, a woman’s cutting knife, with an ivory handle, beautifully carved in the likeness of a mythical sea monster known as the ‘Palrayak.’ It will travel to Scotland for study and preservation before being returned. Tribal leaders say they will eventually display it either in Bethel or Quinhagak for future generations.