Unearthing The Past In Nuvuk

These carved artifacts were recovered at Nuvuk. Photo courtesy of Exporatorium. Most archaeological digs occur in areas off limits to the public, in relatively stable conditions, with teams of experienced professionals.

The Nuvuk Archaeological Project (NAP), taking place outside of Barrow, Alaska, is unlike most.

This excavation of an ancient Thule cemetery is taking place in rapidly eroding gravel whose instability threatens to dump buried bodies into the ocean. In addition, although trained archaeologists lead the project, the excavation crew consists predominantly of North Slope high school students. Finally, the cemetery site is located on Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation (UIC) land in an area open to the public and used for recreation.

Waves crash along the shore near the Nuvuk Archaeological site, where researchers are excavating bodies from an ancient cemetery. Photo courtesy Anne Jensen.

“The area is far enough out of town that people are going to go out there and do what they are going to do, unless you post a guard, which isn’t possible in this scenario,” said Anne Jensen, Principal Investigator and an employee of UIC Science LLC. “So we move as efficiently as possible.”

Those nuances (unstable soil, a young and inexperienced crew and the public access) did not dissuade Jensen from investigating the Nuvuk site, which has proven to be an archaeologically rich area ripe with history lessons. Since 2005, Jensen and her team have been excavating the previously unknown burial site with funding from the Department of Education's Education through Cultural and Historical Organizations (ECHO) and the National Science Foundation.  Since launching the project, the team has excavated 73 burials, from which a related project is recovering and analyzing DNA samples. In addition, they have discovered an Ipiutak occupation of Nuvuk, recovered and cleaned artifacts and obtained radiocarbon dates and analyzed driftwood, even providing DNA samples for a study of arctic wood fungi.

They're not digging for sand castles. North Slope high school students get the unique experiential educational experience of working on a professional excavation team at the Nuvuk dig site.

Driftwood provides important DNA evidence that scientists analyze at a lab in Salt Lake City—after it's carefully collected from the beach samples, of course. Photo courtesy Anne Jensen.

“Our goals are two-fold,” said Jensen. “First, we want to keep the bodies from falling into the ocean. Then we wanted to find out as much as we can about this archaeological resource before it falls into the water. When we first began it was primarily a data recovery thing. Now we are learning from where, and how, and why, and when did people come through here?”

So far, the data suggest that the Ipiutak occupation dates back to between 130 and 390 A.D. The earliest of the human remains date back to between 875 and 1005 A.D., said Jensen, which is significantly older than local authorities originally expected when they first received a call in 1997 about emerging bodies at the Nuvuk site.

“We thought maybe it was a couple hundred years old, but the body that emerged had specific types of harpoon heads at its feet  which indicated that it was about a thousand years old, much older than originally thought,” said Jensen.

What ensued was a multi-year collaborative archaeological excavation that is filling in important data gaps about Alaskan settlement and human migration, she said.

“This tells us that there were villages here, it was evidence that the Thule migration at least passed through here,” she said.

Previously, she said, some considered Barrow a migration “backwater,” where individuals may have passed through but never settled down; some even suggested the area was abandoned for hundreds of years at the beginning of the last millennium.  Instead, Jensen and her team have discovered the Ipiutak occupation, 500 kilometers north of any previously known coastal Ipiutak, as well as a cemetery which was in use from 900AD through the 1400s, perhaps longer.

In addition, the Nuvuk Archaeology Project has earned recognition for its experience training high school and college students in Arctic fieldwork and laboratory archaeology. The team has partnered with PolarTREC, ECHO (Education through Cultural and Historical Organizations), and Ice Stories with the Exploratorium to immerse students in the grueling work of field archaeology.

Before they work at the school site, high school students train on archaeology methods. Click on the image above to read Jensen's account of this training. Photo courtesy of Exploratorium.

“The Native high school students are extremely enthusiastic,” said Jensen. “Some even think it will make them a better parent. It helps them appreciate their culture, their past.”

The experience also provides them an appreciation for the laws that govern archaeological removal and endows them with important job skills for later in life.

“Whether or not this is what they do for a career, they learn how to take notes, ask questions,” said Jensen. “For a lot of these kids this is their first job and their first job interview.”

And beyond immersing themselves in the past, the work is also fun, she said.

“What’s not to like about it? They get to ride on an ATV and spend the day outside.”