Archaeologist describes lockdown in remote Alaskan village

An archaeologist from a Scottish university has described conditions in an Alaskan village where he is in lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr Rick Knecht from the University of Aberdeen leads a team in the Yupik village of Quinhagak, where they have uncovered more than 100,000 important artefacts during his time there.

It was one of the first villages to go into lockdown at the onset of the pandemic, with masks mandatory in public places and limits on how many customers can enter village stores.

Quinhagak
Quinhagak has no roads and endures freezing winters (University of Aberdeen/PA)

Non-residents are forbidden from going there until at least the end of May and any villagers returning from elsewhere must endure a strict 14-day quarantine along with members of their household.

Quinhagak has no roads and endures freezing winters but despite its remoteness has not escaped the threat of Covid-19.

Dr Knecht said: “I was honoured to be counted among Quinhagak’s residents and allowed to stay.

“This is our 11th year working here and we have become part of the community.

“It has been a cold winter with wind chills exceeding minus 60. Caribou (reindeer) have been scarce and for the first time in memory, starving wolves invaded the community looking for food.”

Fish
The first runs of salmon will be swimming upstream in about a month (University of Aberdeen/PA)

He added: “Armed men patrolled the village outskirts and children were sheltered in homes and occasionally evacuated from outdoor playgrounds using school buses.

“Pipes froze across the village and I’m still without plumbing in my cabin.

“But the temperatures now are above freezing in mid-day and the tundra has emerged from the snow.

“Unfortunately the villagers now have another threat to contend with.

“The nearest case of Covid-19 is now in Bethel, some 70 miles away, but supplies are still coming in on a regular basis and the first runs of salmon will be swimming upstream in about a month.”

The senior lecturer, originally from Petoskey in Michigan, US, said trout fishing through the ice has also been productive, while hunters have been harvesting and sharing moose and reindeer meat.

But melting ice and raging winter storms threatens the team’s plan to reclaim the nearby Nunalleq archaeological site.

So far it has revealed wooden ritual masks, ivory tattoo needles and even a belt of caribou teeth all preserved in the arctic soil.

Despite the coronavirus lockdown measures, Dr Knecht plans to return to Scotland as soon as the pandemic clears to publish the findings.

He said: “Dating to the 16th and 17th centuries AD, these artefacts have given us our first detailed look at Yupik culture before outside contact.

“It is also the first time that such an important and spectacular collection has ever been housed and curated by an Alaska native village.

“Quinhagak is very remote and so research on the collection is immeasurably enriched by community engagement and participation as traditional and scientific knowledge are applied in combination.”

He added: “Although socialising with elders and culture bearers has been curtailed with social distancing, we can still exchange ideas through local internet and texting.

“Lockdown has provided a unique opportunity to focus on collections work – time that is otherwise very hard to get – and by summer’s end I hope to have the collection completely catalogued.

“As soon as the pandemic clears, I will return to my post at the University of Aberdeen to help organise publication of a monograph on the site.”

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