An Aberdeen university has returned a huge collection of artefacts “frozen in time” to the indigenous people of Alaska.
Archaeologists from Aberdeen University have spent more than eight years painstakingly recovering and preserving everyday objects that indigenous Yup’ik people used – in a race against the clock before melting ice and raging winter storms reclaim the Nunalleq site.
Dating back more than four centuries, their finds include wooden ritual masks, ivory tattoo needles, and even a belt of caribou teeth, all preserved in “extraordinary condition”.
Now archaeologists and museum staff from the university are working with The Qanirtuuq Native Village Corporation to put the finishing touches to the first exhibition at a new museum which will enable them to be displayed in their place of origin.
Aberdeen University project leader Dr Rick Knecht said: “The unique conditions in this arctic region mean artefacts which are more than four centuries old have retained an unbelievable level of detail.
“We have uncovered grass baskets and mats made when Shakespeare walked the earth but when we take them out of the ground the grass weaving still retains a trace of its green colour and we have been amazed by the variety and intricacy of the woven patterns.”
Once removed from the ground, however, the artefacts begin to deteriorate quickly and it is for this reason that Dr Knecht and his team transported more than 50,000 items to Aberdeen University, where professional conservators oversaw preservation treatment.
Dr Knecht said: “When we began the project, it was impossible to conduct conservation work on site, and the items recovered were transported, some still covered in earth, to Aberdeen.
“The long-term goal, however, has always been to return them to where they belong and that has become possible with the imminent opening of the new Nunalleq Culture and Archaeology Research Center.”
He added: “This is one of the largest collections ever recovered from a single site in Alaska, and perhaps even the whole Arctic region, and is of huge significance as it now accounts for more than 90% of everything we know about pre-contact Yup’ik, one of the major indigenous groups in North America.
“We are delighted to be working with the Nunalleq community to ensure these vital artefacts related to their lives can be shared in the place they belong.”