Yup'ik village Quinhagak takes archaeology digital - and upends a paradigm

Dr. Rick Knecht of the University of Aberdeen and the lead archaeologist on the Nunalleq...
Dr. Rick Knecht of the University of Aberdeen and the lead archaeologist on the Nunalleq project, hands a mask up to another archaeologist. (Photo courtesy of Alice Watterson) (KTUU)
Published: Sep. 2, 2019 at 4:36 PM AKDT
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The tiny village of Quinhagak in southwest Alaska continues to pioneer a new approach to developing its unique Yup'ik culture and heritage in the 21st century.

The village of about 700 has already made it into the pages of

and other national publications for its rejection of a traditional model of sending important archaeological artifacts to Outside museums and its creation of the village’s own museum at which it displays its artifacts. But now the village, in collaboration with archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, have developed a way they hope can connect to generations of the future.

Their method: a computer game. In the parlance of the archaeologists, it is a “digital resource” for the dig site of Nunalleq, a site a few miles from the village of Quinhagak, whose unique chemistry has allowed exceptional preservation of artifacts nearly 500 years old, but which is threatened by climate change-induced erosion.

Dr. Alice Watterson excavating at Nunalleq during the summer season. (Photo courtesy of Alice Watterson)

While transferring the artifacts to the heritage center has allowed archaeologists to store the artifacts indefinitely within the village, they are now facing a change perhaps even more ravaging than climate change: technology. With younger generations more and more tied to their cell phones and devices, the village council decided to take one more step to secure kids’ ability to access the artifacts of their ancestors.

“We discussed it with community members, the board and the tribe,” said Warren Jones, the CEO of the village corporation. “Nowadays all these young people are into the internet and phones, so why not get everything on computer or where they can look at an object on there and press on it and it describes everything?”

Two classmates at the Kuinerrarmiut Elitnaurviat School in Quinhagak listen to elders speak about subsistence practices in the Nunalleq educational resource. (Photo courtesy Alice Watterson)

This year, students and teachers have the program installed on their laptops, and use it particularly during Yupik class.

Jones also said he saw a benefit that he could use the resource to describe the project to potential or committed teachers trying to understand the project. School teachers are even using it for their monthly professional development training.

Watterson, an archaeologist from Scotland who specializes in using digital reconstruction to produce educational and interpretive products, took the lead on the digitization project.

The first step was digitizing some of the thousands of artifacts from the collection that is said to be the largest collection of Yup'ik artifacts in the world. After winnowing down the thousands of artifacts, which include everything from clay pots, fish traps, bone drills and wooden masks, to just about 120, Watterson began the 3D scanning with a handheld Artec Spider structured-light scanner. According to Watterson, the process involves projecting a light grid across the surface of each object in a systematic manner and feeding the data into a computer, which then turns the artifact into something that is recognizable in a digital world.

Dr. Watterson using the Artec Spider scanner to record a pottery shard from Nunalleq in 3D. Watterson says a complete scan can take anywhere from 10 minutes to two hours. (Photo courtesy of Rick Knecht)

It’s a fairly standard process in archaeology, says Watterson, but some of the artifacts from Nunalleq required some special techniques.

“If we have shiny artifacts (like the ivory pieces) and you move too quickly, the light bounces all over the place and the scanner gets confused and mangles the alignment of the 3D points,” wrote Watterson to KTUU. “Similarly, some of the objects have moving parts (things held together with sinew etc.) so to scan one side, then flip it over to scan the back means things can move and joining the back and front of the object is a nightmare.”

That meant that while some of the artifacts could be completed in ten minutes, others took up to two hours to complete.

Users of the educational resource can click on the objects and rotate them with a mouse while they hear stories and information from the virtual guides. (Alice Watterson with characters by Tom Paxton)

After the scans, Watterson conducted interviews with community members to get audio to go along with the artifacts. Community members told stories or described artifacts in Yup'ik that users of the digital resource can hear when they click on an item. Many artifacts have insights from elders, youth and archaeologists.

One story told was converted into a

- a years-long series of battles among the pre-contact Natives - that was said to have started after one child is said to have blinded another with a dart.

Then an animator, Tom Paxton, created characters using real community members including a page within the resource that describes the archaeologists’ desk explaining the scientific work that went into the project.

"Nothing is as good as being there in person, but since we can’t, this takes us right into the homes of the people that lived in Nunalleq, so you click and hear it in the one person’s voice from the village that you know," said Peggie Price, the principal of the Kuinerrarmiut Elitnaurviat school in Quinhagak.

The program is available for

and copies were also transferred to USB drives and shipped from Scotland to Quinhagak and other communities in the Lower Kuskokwim School District.

Warren Jones was impressed with the final product, and says that he even sees some commercial value outside of the connection it makes him feel to his grandmother, with whom he used to walk to Nunalleq, located several miles down the beach from Quinhagak. Jones says that he thinks young carvers will be able to use the digital scans as models for crafts.

“There's a lot of people that sell arts and crafts, baskets, hats, and stuff like that and now the younger guys are starting to get into carving, which is good cause the more they do it, the better they get,” he said, “It's just not archaeology, it's also creating some jobs during the summer.”

A young volunteer holds a toggle in the shape of an owl transforming into a seal. (Photo courtesy of the Nunalleq Archaeology Project Blog)

It’s especially important after the only fish buyer in the area pulled out a few years back. Since then, visiting archaeologists and the occasional fisherman or explorer have been the main buyers for the carving and craftsmanship.

Now the dig is largely completed and the grant funding used up, meaning fewer archaeologists in the area who could explain the artifacts at the cultural center. Those resources are still available for when kids - or adults - want some inspiration, but the digital availability is adding a potential source that is even more accessible.

“If people use the education pack and the 3D artifacts as inspiration to learn a traditional skill, make their own replicas and make a living at the same time, that would be a very happy outcome,” said Watterson.

“People would rather work than be given handouts,” said Jones.

But the most important piece of the digital resource - and the archaeology project as a whole - is to reclaim the cultural heritage that has been lost over the decades of colonization. Keeping the artifacts in the village has been the first step and has made Quinhagak a model for rural Alaska, attracting visitors from villages around the region.

The digital resource is just the current iteration in the pioneering process. Next up: a complete, community-curated online exhibition and artifact catalogue that can be accessed throughout the world.

Jones says that it’s all part of a groundbreaking vision.

“We're all very proud of what we've done,” says Jones, “No other community we know of has done it and our big push is for the future generation and it'll always be here in Quinhagak.”

Nunalleq or “Old Village” as seen from the air (Photo courtesy of Nunalleq Archaeology Project Blog)
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