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An (Ancient) Race Against Time

An archaeologist holds a large slate point in a grassy field

Archaeologists in remote Shaktoolik (shack-TOO-lik) are racing against time to unearth what lies beneath the soil. They’re not just working to learn about the history of Arctic cultures, they’re working to learn about this history before it’s lost forever.

Producer Lauren Frost recently chronicled the labors of a team of archaeologists from the University of California-Davis who, collaborating with local villagers, have been digging up artifacts for years, working to preserve them before they succumb to the environment. Archaeologist Kelly Eldridge explained the urgency of their quest: the rural Alaska landscape, she says, “has fantastic preservation of artifacts and animal bones and things like that,” in large part due to permafrost. For millennia, this frozen ground helped preserve artifacts, but now, the permafrost is beginning to melt. Combined with local erosion, there’s a real threat that the artifacts of many generations past will soon be erased, as the thawed, pudding-like muck breaks up and rots away what nature has kept unspoiled for centuries.

The Shaktoolik archaeological sites have an exceptional density of historical pieces to be discovered, including spear tips and other tools. They’re home to more than 200 “house pits,” indentations in the ground with fragmentary remains of millennia-old homes. They offer clues about the people who inhabited Western Alaska generations ago.

An archaeological dig intern helps with excavations in a grassy field near Shaktoolik on a sunny day.

Intern Levi Sagoonick helps with excavations. Photo: Kelly Eldridge, UC Davis.

In some ways, archaeology in the region offers advantages over similar sites further south. Eldridge told KNOM, “Alaska, as a state, is just a gorgeous place to work; it has an amazing, rich, and deep history… Unlike places in the Lower 48, where people have been doing archaeology for a long time, a lot of the state hasn’t been explored.” There’s an air of adventure and discovery to the work, she says; that’s why she light-heartedly dubs herself and her co-workers in Shaktoolik “the history detectives.”

A sponsorship agreement with a regional airline offers KNOM free airfares to villages. Combined with your support, projects to preserve and record such rich historical culture can be shared. To hear a fascinating adventure story that you helped bring to life, listen to this recent episode of KNOM’s monthly Story49 feature program.