The Big Thaw

It started with a little wooden doll being found on a beach in Alaska. Then over time, more and more artefacts began turning up.

‘We recognised them at once as being extraordinary,’ says Richard Knecht, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Aberdeen. ‘So we followed the trail of finds to the site that they were coming from.’

It turned out that melting permafrost at Nunalleq,on the Bering Sea coast, was exposing precious cultural artefacts, some of them over five hundred years old, belonging to the local Yup’ik people.

These objects included everyday items that show how the Yup’ik lived in the past, and extraordinary things such as ritual masks and ivory figurines. Even organic material had been preserved in the frozen ground, including the world’s first archaeologically recoverable fleas (both human and dog), and grass that had been cut in Shakespeare’s time.

But as the climate gets warmer and the thaw advances, so sites like Nunalleq – and thousands more around the Arctic – are being threatened.

No longer protected by permafrost, artefacts made of bone, caribou antler, walrus ivory or driftwood begin to rot and crumble almost immediately, if they’re not looked after. And then there’s the threat of rising seas: even in the few years that Richard Knecht and his team have been investigating at Nunalleq, the beach has moved back forty feet: ‘one good winter storm and we could lose this whole site.’

So the AHRC-funded project Understanding Cultural Resilience and Climate Change on the Bering Sea began partly as a race against time: it was a desperate piece of ‘rescue archaeology,’ trying to preserve as much as possible of the material from Nunalleq.

Working closely with the local community, the researchers on the project have made spectacular finds – already theirs is one of the largest collections of artefacts ever recovered from the Arctic, and the project has led to the opening of a culture centre and archaeological research facility, to help to conserve and understand what’s found.

But the project also has a wider significance. What the research team is uncovering shows that this is not the first time that people on the Bering Sea coast have had to deal with changing climatic conditions. Many of the finds at Nunalleq come from what is known as the Little Ice Age of the 1600s, a period of freezing conditions during which it is thought that a third of all humans died.

The project is important, therefore, because it helps us answer the bigger question of how communities adapt to climate change, by looking at how they did so in the past. The evidence suggests that in the Little Ice Age, the struggle for food led to war breaking out around the Bering Sea. 

But as project leader Richard Knecht points out, there is also evidence of people’s adaptability:‘the lesson from Nunalleq is that there’s a certain amount of resilience in cultural systems in dealing with climate change.

People adapt better than animals do: they adapt by sharing information, sharing food, sharing resources – as things got colder, for example, we can see that people moved together into shared houses. Small-scale societies, at least, are quick on their feet in deciding what to do in the face of environmental catastrophe.’