Like all archaeologists, Dr Alice Watterson spends her days with one foot in the past but when she was asked to join an excavation in the Alaskan tundra it was the start of a journey into a lost world of war, peace and dance.

As well as being an archaeologist, Alice is a reconstruction artist based at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design. For the past two years she has been working with the Nunalleq Archaeology Project near the Alaska Native village of Quinhagak to develop a digital educational resource to help teach local children about the site that she and her colleagues have been excavating. It is a project that has drawn Alice into the pre-contact story of Yup’ik Eskimo people and challenged her perceptions of how and why we tell stories about the past.

“As archaeologists I think we all feel very privileged to be able to work on this project, not least because like many Alaska Native communities Yup’ik tradition believes that the ancestors should not be disturbed. But when the local community realised the site and the stories it held was at risk of being lost forever they made the critical decision to take action,” she explained. “The effects of climate change feel so immediate in coastal places like Quinhagak where rising tides, melting permafrost and increasingly violent winter storms are irreparably damaging the archaeology – essentially the site is crumbling into the sea. The village community realises the importance of documenting what was there and what it can tell us about the history of the Yup’ik people so it can be passed on to the next generation.”

Climate change and conflict

Nunalleq lies on the southwest coast of Alaska, which was home to Yup’ik people for many centuries before Russian explorers arrived in the 1700s. The archaeologists, led by Dr Rick Knecht and Dr Charlotta Hillerdal from the University of Aberdeen, were tasked with excavating what had previously been a large sod house from what locals refer to as Nunalleq – ‘The Old Village’ dating back to at least the 15th century. They uncovered an unparalleled collection of more than 60,000 artefacts related to everyday life for Yup’ik people – life that was unalterably changed when a rival village launched a murderous attack almost 350 years ago.

Traces of fire can be found throughout the house, used to smoke out 50 or so residents who used it as their base when not out hunting, fishing, and gathering plants. Skeletons of women, children, and elders were found together outside the house, suggesting that they were captured and killed. The findings validate oral histories passed down through subsequent generations since the Bow and Arrow Wars, when Yup’ik communities engaged in bloody conflict over diminishing resources probably caused by the Little Ice Age. The coldest years came in the 1600s, when the evidence uncovered by the archaeologists dates the attack at Nunalleq to. Alice says the artefacts found at the site reveal the shifting psyche of the Yup’ik brought about by scarcity.

“We can clearly see two major phases of the sod house: the earliest structure in the deepest layers of the excavation can be dated back to the 15th century, while it was the later, much larger house that was attacked,” explained Alice. “It is interesting to see how the iconography of the artefacts from these two different times hint at the villager’s mindset. From the latter phase, when you had a lot of inter-village warfare, the masks represent fierce animals like the wolf and we uncover an alarming number of very angry looking carved wooden dolls. While the older house turns up carvings and masks which seem to focus on their relationship with the sea and landscape: representations of seals, owls, puffins, caribou to name a few. The site provides a window into the life of Yup’ik at war and peace. The story of the attack on the Old Village has been passed down the centuries but this is the first evidence to endorse this oral history.”

Rebuilding the past

The Nunalleq dig had been underway for seven years when Alice was drafted in to lend her expertise to the next phase of the project in late 2016. With specialisms in illustration, survey and visualisation, she was brought in to bring the sod house back to life by producing a digital model of how it may have looked centuries ago.

Part of her remit was to develop an education pack for the village school that can also be used for outreach activities via the internet. Working closely with the local community at every stage and immersing herself in Yup’ik culture as she did so, Alice has produced a reconstruction of the house and the surrounding landscape that children can explore. While moving around the interface, users can click on selected objects to bring up a 3D scan of artefacts found at the site and hear from the voices of village elders, archaeologists and craftspeople to find out more about the role they played in the life of their ancestors.

“Co-design was the essential part for me,” said Alice. “The outputs and content had to be what the village wanted to see and not just what some outsiders imposed on them. I was responding to the stories that people were interested in telling. Ultimately I was there to respond to the archaeology of the site and to the stories the artefacts were bringing up. All the items in the educational resource are named in Yup’ik first and English second, and I’ve worked with the village community to make sure I get this right. The village board were clear in their brief: they wanted educational outreach about the archaeology for the school and they wanted it to be digital. As is the same the world over elders in Quinhagak are forever lamenting the amount of time the younger generation spend on their devices. So, the village board’s request to make the educational resource digital was a savvy means of engaging with the children on their own turf. As elder and culture-bearer Grace Hill put it, ‘they’re on their phones all the time anyway, they might as well be learning something!’”

The artefacts recovered include eating utensils, hunting equipment, wooden dance masks, ivory tattoo needles, woven grass and fragments of clothing. Being frozen in the ground has helped preserve an extraordinary number and variety of objects, which reveal much about both the way that the Yup’ik people lived from the 15th to 18th century and also how their beliefs have prevailed through the subsequent centuries of change.

“To this day people in Quinhagak live a subsistence lifestyle, which means people are intimately connected to landscape,” continued Alice. “They have deep respect for the environment and the animals they hunt, just as the ancestors did, and we see this in the archaeological record. The day-to-day tools recovered often feature absolutely beautiful carvings of animals which reflect what the ancient Yup’ik were gathering from the sea and surrounding rivers. They believed that if they did this these animals would present themselves when they went hunting.

“I know I’m not alone in saying that I find the wooden face masks to be among the most compelling artefacts. These were used as part of traditional Yup’ik dancing or yuraq. The masks, movements of a dance and the words of a song all tied in together to respond to a particular mythology or story. These masks would often only be used for one dance and then abandoned to the tundra or broken or burned. Many would have been brightly painted but today we only find traces of red, white and black paint on what remains.

One feature we’ve developed here at the 3DVisLab in Dundee with programmer John Anderson is an interface within the educational resource which allows children to form their own interpretations by painting on 3D scanned models of some of the Nunalleq masks using the same colours their ancestors would have. It is fantastic to see the children who have played with early versions of the educational resource form new contemporary engagements with the artefacts.

“The tundra area is huge. Scotland could fit into it something like 20 times over so you have all these dispersed villages. Outreach for this remote collection is therefore very important and the digital resource will be distributed across the wider Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta area as well as being available to download online. The collection returned to Quinhagak in 2018 to be housed in the new village owned and run Nunalleq Culture and Archaeology Centre which is a huge step in the right direction towards decolonialising indigenous archaeology. It is vital that the story is presented in a way that villagers are happy with and that is in line with Yup’ik beliefs and values.”

The climate changes again

Just as the Little Ice Age posed an existential threat to the Yup’ik people, climate change is once again wreaking havoc on the inhabitants of the tundra. The genesis for the excavation came when villagers began finding artefacts from the site on the nearby beach. Increasingly extreme weather has seen the Bering Sea claim more and more coastal land.

In coastal Alaska, average temperatures have risen by around 1.7C in the past half century, leading to thawing permafrost, while the global level of oceans has risen about eight inches since 1900. As violent storms speeded up the process of erosion exponentially, the site of The Old Village was in danger of falling into the sea. The community in Quinhagak knew something important lay underground and that they faced a race against time to uncover and preserve the stories held beneath the surface.

“It is difficult to put a modern interpretation on the type of life the Yup’ik once led but what is clear from the artefacts we have found is the ingenious way that they used the technology available to them to co-exist and thrive in what would seem to many to be a challenging environment,” said Alice. “At a time when we could all do with learning from their approach to sustainability it is devastating that the industrialised world is threatening a life that, just as back then, has very little impact on the environment.”

“People still live subsistence lives in the village and are connected to their past in a way that I am not. The archaeological sites I usually work on in Scotland are thousands of years old and I feel very disconnected to the lives of the people of that time. As such, it is both exhilarating and quite intimidating to work with a village where people are so connected to their past. The elders are helping us all the time to identify things that are found at the site.”

The joy of dance

Quinhagak has a population of around 750. There, like elsewhere in the world, the older residents worry that the younger generation are forgetting their heritage. For that reason, Alice was especially delighted that one aspect of her work witnessed the young Yup’ik championing a cultural revival of traditional practices that were a distant memory to even their grandparents.

Drum handles and rims were among the objects found at Nunalleq along with the vast array of masks relating to ceremonial dances, demonstrating how important dancing was to pre-contact Yup’ik culture. But until 2013, when the Quinhagak dance group was formed, dancing hadn’t happened in Quinhagak for around a century after the practice was discouraged by missionaries spreading the word of the Moravian Church in Alaska. Today the village has reached a point where both traditional practices and the church co-exist and the young people decided the time was right to rediscover song and dance.

“The way that the teenagers in Quinhagak responded to the artefacts was to write their own traditional dance song” explained Alice, who filmed a performance of the dance as part of her work in Alaska. “After the idea was sparked they took their own initiative, organising meets to work on the song nearly every evening for two weeks. The song responds to artefacts they were looking at and lines in it see them praise their ancestors for being so skilled and asking them questions like how they lived, how they hunted and how they told stories.

“So much of Yup’ik identity is tied to language and traditional practices like dancing but we hear stories from elders who remember a time when even speaking their own language was discouraged by external forces. All that is changing now with language revitalisation initiatives and there is the annual Cama-i festival of traditional dancing in nearby Bethel that the Quinhagak group has taken part in. These young people have taken ownership of a part of their culture that had died out in their village and as I was filming I could see faces of parents and grandparents in the crowd becoming quite emotional. It’s one of the many things that make this such a unique and special project to be involved in.”

Images by Alice Watterson and the Nunalleq Archaeology Project Blog, character design and animation by Tom Paxton