Archaeology in northern Alaska: a race against the clock

A photograph of the Walakpa archaeological site south of Utqiaġvik following a storm in 2014. The storm caused over 30 feet of coastline to collapse and wash away in certain places, along with archaeological artifacts it contained. (Photo Courtesy of Walakpa Archaeological Salvage Project)

Until recently, northern Alaska was one of the places that archaeologists weren’t exactly in a hurry to dig. That’s because the permafrost functioned kind of like a big freezer where artifacts could stay well-preserved until researchers got around to excavating them.

Listen now

Of course, that’s changing. Permafrost thaw and coastal erosion mean that more sites are at risk of being lost, or are already gone. And Alaskan archaeologists are joining a national conversation about how to confront these sorts of changes

Anne Jensen is one of them. She’s an anthropological archaeologist who’s lived in Utqiaġvik for over two decades. During that time, she’s excavated many different sites across the North Slope. And increasingly, that work has become a race against the clock.

“I mean it’s like burning down a library basically,” Jensen said. “If you see a library burning, you should at least try and get the rare books out.”

In the Alaskan Arctic, several things are happening at once. One is that the ground is getting warmer, which means that eventually, frozen artifacts will start to rot. Another is that as sea ice disappears from the Arctic Ocean, the coastline of the North Slope is more vulnerable to storm damage. And that means that all kinds of archaeological material is disappearing into the ocean in big chunks.

In her lab at the Barrow Arctic Research Center, Jensen goes to a cabinet and takes out several artifacts, carefully labeled and sealed in plastic bags. One is a fishhook, recovered from a nearby archaeological site in 2013.

“Had we not excavated this in 2013, there was a storm in 2014 that took out not only where this was but about 33-34 feet directly in from the bluff was undercut and slumped and fell apart,” Jensen said. “So this would have all been gone.”

It’s lucky that Jensen got to these artifacts in time. Because in a state as big as Alaska, she says there are probably thousands of sites that archaeologists haven’t excavated… or might not even know about.

Anne Jensen at her lab in Utqiaġvik, looking through artifacts recovered from the Walakpa archaeological site in 2013. She says that, had they not been excavated the year before, they would have been washed away in the 2014 storm. (Alaska’s Energy Desk/ Ravenna Koenig)

So what do researchers do?

One idea is to change the way that research is actually done in places like Alaska. Jensen is part of a committee of anthropologists that are currently urging institutions like the National Science Foundation to fund a surge of documentation of what’s in the field now, and analyze it later.

“Rather than doing the normal science process where you write the proposal, you do the work, you do the analysis, you write it all up, and then you start the cycle over again… having a cycle that’s just getting the data, and getting it stabilized enough that it doesn’t rot in the bags; it goes off to a museum and is taken care of, and then gets analyzed a little further down the road — you’ll wind up with more data 50 years from now than you would if you just do normal science,” Jensen said.

Another thing they’re talking about is coming up with what they call a “threat matrix” — basically a way to help assess which sites are most vulnerable to climate change — which could factor into funding decisions.

Jensen acknowledges that there’s usually not much money available for social sciences like archaeology. But she hopes that the time pressures archaeologists are now under — not just in the Arctic, but in other places around the world where coastal erosion and sea level rise are a problem — will spur more attention to the field.