Quinhagak’s Nunalleq Museum has the world's largest collection of Yup’ik artifacts, and they keep finding more
Elder John Roberts still thinks about the ancient toy kayak he found on the beach when he was a boy. He sold it then, before he realized what it would mean to him.
Artifacts would show up from time to time near Quinhagak, on the rocky coast of the Bering Sea. The story had been passed down through generations: there was a source.
“The Elders used to say there’s a place not far from here that you will find artifacts from there,” explained Roberts. “They never talked too much about it, but they told us there’s a land they call Nunalleq. A land long time ago. All the things would be hidden. Someday, someone will find them.”
Many didn’t want to go looking for Nunalleq, "the old village." Tradition says not to mess with artifacts because they carry energy. But in 2007, more and more artifacts were washing up on the shores. Climate change was accelerating erosion and permafrost melt. This was revealing ancient history, but also causing it to rot away.
Warren Jones, the CEO of the Qanirtuuq village corporation, sent pictures of the finds to archeologist Dr. Rick Knecht, then a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Together they located the site. Warren, and other Elders on the corporation's board, had to rally the village to support its excavation.
“We were always told don't touch these old sites,” said Jones. “So I had to convince the main Elders back then for about two years or so. We need to do this. We need to tell our kids where we're coming from, where we came from. As my late grandfather used to tell me, don't ever forget where you came from.”
They got the support they needed, and it took a village to carry out the dig. It wasn’t until years later that the village got running water. And over five years ago, Jones found a surplus building. It became the museum. The Nunalleq Museum now has the largest collection of Yup’ik artifacts in the world.
“There's a lot of stuff I like in there," said Jones. “But the mask and ivory carvings, like, how on earth did they carve these without modern tools? That's impressive. I mean, it's hard enough to cut ivory even with textile metal blades. These guys wouldn't have none of that. So just boggles the mind on how impressive the artwork is. No sandpaper. No drills. Nothing. Probably dark in the south houses. Just makes you wonder. These were tough people.”
On the afternoon of the Nunalleq museum's fifth anniversary this August, the converted preschool building buzzed for the end of summer open house. The cozy two-room building sits on stilts, with blue steps and a small sign that says "Welcome home" over the rusted door. Inside, large windows show the grassy tundra and far off mountains.
Knecht, now an emeritus professor of archeology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, has led the dig since it started in 2009. For the anniversary, he curated the display of the best finds of the summer on folding tables.
“Get it all in one place. It's pretty stunning, isn't it?” Knecht asked; others agreed. “From one summer, good grief. And not a very big hole either.”
Roberts studied a mask’s big frown and downward slanted eyebrows. This one was speaking to him.
“I felt sadness right away. Sorrow, sicknesses,” said Roberts. “Probably the things that happened before. Not in my time, but in their time.”
This dig is packed with unusually well preserved, intricate pieces. This year alone they found five complete masks, new arrowheads, spoons, stick dolls, ivory earrings, ulus, and more. Knecht said that researchers are always learning from what they find.
“I guess my favorite piece of this year was the two hatch kayak model. Because for so long, everyone, the conventional wisdom was that multiple hatch kayaks were a Russian invention,” Knecht said. “And this is yet another thing that we know now was invented here in Alaska by Native people.”
Knecht said that nearly everything they know about Yup’ik prehistory before the arrival of the Russians is the result of the Nunalleq excavation. This isn’t a typical museum.
“Normally, we would have taken a collection like this to Fairbanks,” said Knecht, who leads the excavation. “But even in Fairbanks, they might as well be on the moon.”
Originally, Knecht and a team of archeologists brought the artifacts back to Knecht’s university in Scotland, but then they found a way to do the lab work locally. Archeologists, academics, conservators, and volunteers from Anchorage, Mexico, Denmark, France, and more, come for the summer to help with the excavation. They work around the clock, rain or shine, mosquitos guaranteed. And they don’t have much funding, so nobody’s paid. It’s a labor of love.
“So you know, there may be 20 scholars around the world who need to see this collection. But there are 700 people here for whom that means everything. So it's more important to have it here in the village, I think. No question,” said Knecht. “And so I think that's really the future of museum work is to kind of decolonize and decentralize it, and give people an opportunity to engage with their own culture on a daily basis.”
Because the museum is here, many people in the community stop by every day. Fernanda Lorenzini, one of the volunteers who helps excavate Nunalleq, said that the community also is critical for the archeologists' understanding of their findings.
“That's the coolest part of this project,” said Lorenzini. “That you have a living culture and living community. And they explain to you exactly what these items were for. You don't really get to have that in any other context.”
The things the team finds tell them the story of a society dating back 700 years. One where everything was used and reused. When an arrow shaft or hunting dart broke, it might become a peg to fasten sled or kayak frames. When that broke, the fine grain wood might become a paintbrush handle.
They were fishing, hunting, and finding plants, as always. And, as Knecht put it, they were a wealthy society, with time for art, ceremony, and trade. There were rich and poor, even slaves. They traded, and raided, and had a significantly colder climate than now, living through a little ice age. They would spend long hours indoors making crafts, which often embodied their deep spirituality and dance.
Knecht was one of the archeologists who commented on how the remnants of this village demonstrate how progress isn’t always linear.
“In these days, people could make just about everything they needed with their own hands. In our times, we can make almost nothing. I don't know how to make a paper clip, a fountain pen, nothing. A shirt button. I wouldn't know how. But they knew how to make all of it. And so each community was independent, no matter what happened. They could deal with it. And not so much anymore,” said Knecht. “Americans measure cultural success by all the cool gadgets we have, but it might be a better idea to measure success by stability and sustainability. And people here were born and grew up and grew old in a culture that they would recognize throughout their life. And our culture is changing like crazy every five years. Now, are we struggling? Or is that innovation? Depends on your point of view.”
Knecht wants to get as much out as possible because he’s worried about climate change and that rural Alaska will be last in line for funding. It’s not just the eroding shoreline, but as the permafrost melts, the artifacts rot. He said that there are hundreds or thousands of sites like this eroding on Alaska’s coasts, but this one is different because the community put in the work.
“Anyway, we're saving this site. This one we're saving. And we're not gonna let anything get lost here. We're gonna keep coming back and saving as many pieces as possible. And so far, we've got more than 100,000,” Knecht said.
These discoveries are giving a window into the past, but also shaping the present. During the time of the missionaries, traditional dancing was banned. Dance fans and masks became wall ornaments. But here, when researchers started digging up masks one after another, the new generation decided to make a dance team. They named themselves the Nunalleq Dancers.
At the anniversary, the dancers performed a song they wrote about the site, mimicking the archeologists with their fans.