Nalukataq

A Day of Archaeology at the Top of the World

The Day of Archaeology 2012 started the way every other day this week did, in the lab.  Unlike the past seven summers, the Nuvuk Archaeology Project is spending a good bit of the summer in the lab.  We have been digging at a furious pace over those summers, because Nuvuk, site of a village occupied from Thule times through contact and up until the 20th century, the associated cemetery, and, it turns out, an Ipiutak occupation 500 km north of any previously known,is eroding at an average rate of 6 meters per year, up from an average of just over 3 meters per year around 1950.  All that digging has resulted in quite a mountain of artifacts and faunal material.  The individuals recovered from the burials are analyzed and reburied in the Barrow cemetery, but the other items remain.

We don’t take a lot of weather days during the short summers, so lab work mostly happens on weekends during the school year.  The Nuvuk crew is mostly made up of local high school students, augmented by undergraduate and grad students in summer, and they have full school days and often sports commitments as well.  As a result, we haven’t been able to process (clean, mark, catalog) everything before the next field season begins.  I decided that we should use the remaining project funds to make sure that was done and done properly. Thus, lab work.

Our crew was fairly small today.  One person who started the summer with us got a more or less permanent job, and another was offered 4 years of summer internships in the field she hopes to go into after college, and a  third just got married on Tuesday!

Trace, Kyle and Coby hard at work in the lab, cataloging Nuvuk artifacts.

Trace showing everyone a really nice whalebone pick head he is about to catalog.

Victoria takes a turn at data entry. All those catalog sheets have to be entered into the existing catalog, created in the field when we record proveniences with the theodolite.

We also have a volunteer working in the lab.  Becca Connor is an intern with the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium.  She’s also interested in socio-natural systems, particularly the possible effects of environmental change on subsistence.  She’s in the process of pulling samples of faunal material from a midden at Pingusugruk, a bit down the coast from Barrow, that was excavated with very good provenience data for faunal material.  I’ve picked a couple of units that seem to contain faunal material from the top of the midden to the bottom and don’t seem to have anything usual happening, and she’s going to ID that with my help and see if any changes are apparent.  The house the midden was associated with was abandoned & reoccupied, so we’re hopeful.

Becca asking what to do with the Styrofoam peanuts that the bags of faunal material were packed in for shipping (it was excavated in the 1990s.)

The morning passed with bags being opened, their information checked against the catalog, and the contents being sorted and cataloged.  We are using archival paper labels that we adhere with an Arcyloid solution, so that happens as another step to reduce the exposure to acetone fumes.  We do it under an extractor, so only 1-2 people can work on it, and it has to happen on the bench Becca is using.  I don’t allow materials from more than one site on a bench at a time.  Less chance of confusion that way.

The afternoon was very different.  The final nalukataq (whaling feast) of the year was being held in Barrow, so we took the afternoon off so everyone could attend.  The 5 successful captains set up a windbreak on the nalukataq grounds, and anyone and everyone is welcome to come, get fed and take some home.  The way the Iñupiat see it, the captains & crews don’t catch the whales, the individual whales have chosen to give themselves to the individual captains, who are expected to take very good care of the whale and share as much as possible out of respect for the whale. Prayers of thanksgiving are said before every round of servings.

It starts with soup (usually with bread & such) around noon, then mikiaq (fermented meat, blubber, blood & so forth) around 3 PM.  It’s very tasty when made right, and no odder than moldy lumps of curdled milk with veins of mold running through it, AKA a nice ripe Stilton.  Around 6PM there is quaq (frozen whale meat) and frozen muktuk (whale skin with some blubber attached, which is both delicious and incredibly warming on a cold day).  There is almost always a sort of dried fruit stew, apples & oranges, and if the captains and/or their wives have been able to arrange it, often special treats like frozen fish or akutaq (AKA Eskimo ice cream).

I was a bit late because I got caught up in another issue, so I missed the first course, the goose soup.  I did get there in time for mikiaq, and got 2 rounds.  The first I had some of right there with the folks I was sitting with, and it was very tasty indeed.  Unfortunately, I forgot my camera & had to use my phone, so the pictures aren’t the best.

Tails and flippers set out at nalukataq for visitors to help themselves. Flags of some of the whaling captains who are hosting this nalukataq fly above the windbreak in the background.

The blanket is at the left, with kids on it between servings. Adults don’t go on it until the evening.

One thing I love about Nalukataqs is that there are always some little kids in pretty parkas playing in the sand & gravel between servings.  They just get into their own little worlds there amid all the people.

Little girl playing in the sand.

Girl playing in the gravel next to the blanket, which is on the ground at the moment.

With five crews hosting (and therefore 5 whales to share), there was a mountain of meat and muktuk.  Crews bring it from the ice cellars just before it is served.  Most of them brought in trucks, and one crew actually got a front end loader and stacked the boxes of whale in the bucket to bring them over.

Meat and muktuk being brought from the ice cellars.

Then it was shared with everyone…  There were people from other villages, at least as far away as the Kotzebue region, and people who live in Anchorage and Fairbanks, and they will take their whale home and share it even farther.

That isn’t all of the whale.  Similar amounts will be shared by these captains at the Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts, they will share on special occasions.  Of course, crew members and those who helped tow and butcher the whale already got shares when the whale was taken, and they will be sharing that throughout the year too.

Going to Nalukataq may not sound like archaeology, but whaling has been the organizing focus of this culture since before most of the sites I work on were formed.  I really don’t see how one can expect to interpret these sites without a pretty good understanding of what whaling actually entails.