Subscribe to Archaeology


Cultural Revival

Excavations near a Yup’ik village in Alaska are helping its people reconnect with the epic stories and practices of their ancestors


Monday, August 24, 2015

Alaska Yupik Excavation


In recent years, Quinhagak, a small southwestern Alaskan village just inland from the Bering Sea, has, along with other coastal communities in the state, witnessed dramatic erosion due to climate change. The area, located at the southern end of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, has historically been prone to damaging storms and flooding, but now, melting sea ice is resulting in larger waves and has left the shoreline more vulnerable to storm surges. Land once held firm by permafrost has softened and is now easily eaten away by the tides, with the result that anything previously embedded in the permafrost is released.


Around 2007, carved wooden objects started washing up on the beach near Quinhagak, and the source seemed to be a site several miles to the south known to have once been inhabited. The native Yup’ik people who live in the area generally believe in not disturbing their ancestors’ settlements, but they recognized that this was a special case. Artifacts of their past were in danger of being lost forever, and they believed that if these objects could be recovered, younger, culturally adrift members of the community might forge a deeper connection with their heritage. So they called in Rick Knecht, an archaeologist at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, who has extensive experience excavating in Alaska, to examine the threatened site. “We landed there,” Knecht says, “and right away found a complete wooden doll on the beach. We followed the tide line and saw more and more evidence of wooden artifacts. A couple miles down the beach, we could see where they were coming from.” A dark midden partially concealed carved wooden shafts and half of a bentwood bowl. Knecht could tell that large chunks of earth had calved off, and big, grassy clumps could be seen on the beach with artifacts essentially pouring out of them.


The site has been dubbed Nunalleq, which means “Old Village” in the Yup’ik language. Since 2009, Knecht has led an excavation team there for up to six weeks each summer. He now recognizes that Nunalleq was occupied on and off between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, well before the first contact between the Yup’ik people and Russian traders, which took place in the 1830s. The archaeologists have found tens of thousands of artifacts—most made of wood or other organic materials, preserved only because they had been embedded in permafrost—that are providing a rare glimpse of precontact Yup’ik life. Hundreds of wooden dolls, from simple flat sticks to three-dimensional carvings, and a number of wooden masks, some large enough for use in a masked dancing ritual and some small enough that they appear to have been designed for use as playthings with the dolls, have been found. Carvings in wood and ivory of animals important to the Yup’ik people, such as seals and birds, have also been discovered. “On average, a person might find two hundred pieces a day,” says Knecht. “There’s so much information there.” Among the most striking finds has been evidence of a period of fierce internecine conflict that may have gone on for hundreds of years.


New York's Original Seaport

Traces of the city’s earliest beginnings as an economic and trading powerhouse lie just beneath the streets of South Street Seaport


Tuesday, September 22, 2015

New York Seaport Print


Over the past 250 years, perhaps no stretch of land in America has undergone greater transformation than Lower Manhattan. Today, its shoreline barely resembles what the earliest Dutch immigrants encountered in the 1600s. The labyrinthine canyons formed by block after block of modern skyscraper construction were once an idyllic setting of small hills, streams, and wetlands. Lower Manhattan is a palimpsest on which each new era has written its own physical history. With the help of archaeology, it is occasionally possible to reconstruct those faintly visible landscapes of the past. The South Street Seaport is located along Lower Manhattan’s eastern shore, near the place where the East River meets the top of New York’s magnificently sheltered harbor. Today it is a tourist-friendly destination with shops, tour boats, and restaurants, and serves as a refuge from the bustle of neighboring Wall Street. No other place epitomizes the growth and transformation of Manhattan in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries more than the South Street Seaport, when it was the busiest port in the United States.



New York Seaport PlateThe 11-block area right around the Seaport, nestled in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, has recently been the focus of a city-led initiative to improve its utilities and infrastructure. The city has long hoped to stimulate the neighborhood’s commercial, residential, and touristic appeal, most recently after it was devastated by a seven-foot storm surge during 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. The initiative includes installing new curbs, resurfacing the streets, and maintaining and replacing damaged subterranean utility lines. All of these projects permit and, in fact, require that archaeologists be brought in prior to the work. Alyssa Loorya, founder of Chrysalis Archaeological Consultants, is one of the archaeologists contacted by city officials to evaluate sensitive areas slated for construction. Over the past decade her team has excavated areas along Fulton, Front, Beekman, Water, and Pearl Streets, as well as extensive sections of Peck Slip. “We have covered pretty much every block in the historic district that has been excavated since 2005,” she says. “It’s been really nice to get a whole little picture of the way this area developed.”


Almost none of the land where Loorya’s team has worked existed when the first Europeans arrived in New York Harbor. The original Manhattan shoreline coincides roughly with the line of present-day Pearl Street, three blocks inland. The land associated with Water, Front, and South Streets, which form the backbone of the South Street Seaport, was completely created by human activity. From the late 1600s through the early 1800s, Lower Manhattan’s shoreline gradually crept farther into the East River as part of a deliberate landfilling process. Land, especially waterfront land, has always been at a premium in New York, and it was no different during the city’s early history. The real estate created for the South Street Seaport was extremely valuable, especially to the merchants, ship owners, and shopkeepers responsible for its growth.



World Trade Center Ship
The Hidden History of New York’s Harbor

Golden House of an Emperor

How archaeologists are saving Nero’s fabled pleasure palace


Monday, August 10, 2015

Golden HouseIn no other matter did he act more wasteful than in building a house that stretched from the Palatine to the Esquiline Hill, which he originally named “Transitoria” [House of Passages], but when soon afterwards it was destroyed by fire and rebuilt he called it “Aurea” [Golden House]. A house whose size and elegance these details should be sufficient to relate: Its courtyard was so large that a 120-foot colossal statue of the emperor himself stood there; it was so spacious that it had a mile-long triple portico; also there was a pool of water like a sea, that was surrounded by buildings which gave it the appearance of cities; and besides that, various rural tracts of land with vineyards, cornfields, pastures, and forests, teeming with every kind of animal both wild and domesticated. In other parts of the house, everything was covered in gold and adorned with jewels and mother-of-pearl; dining rooms with fretted ceilings whose ivory panels could be turned so that flowers or perfumes from pipes were sprinkled down from above; the main hall of the dining rooms was round, and it would turn constantly day and night like the Heavens; there were baths, flowing with seawater and with the sulfur springs of the Albula; when he dedicated this house, that had been completed in this manner, he approved of it only so much as to say that he could finally begin to live like a human being.  Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars


In the mid-first century A.D. there was no building in Rome as sumptuous, ornate, or grand as the Domus Aurea, or “Golden House,” a lavish imperial residence and sprawling park covering hundreds of acres in an area known as the Oppian Hill between the Palatine and Esquiline Hills on the city’s northern side. Constructed by the emperor Nero and born from the ashes of the massive A.D. 64 fire that destroyed the city center and cleared the space that it would occupy—perhaps explaining the persistent suspicion held by many Romans that the emperor himself had set the fire—the vast property had hundreds of rooms. There were walls sheathed in polychrome marble, vaults and ceilings covered in vibrant frescoes by the artist Fabullus, and in precious stones, ivory, and gold, and gardens full of masterpieces of sculpture from Greece and Asia Minor. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, who praises the palace’s architects, Severus and Celer, for having the “ingenuity and courage to try the force of art even against the veto of nature,” what was even more marvelous than the spectacular interiors were “the fields and lakes and the air of solitude given by wooden ground alternating with clear tracts and open landscapes.”


Domus Aurea Fabullus FrescosYet the emperor’s extraordinary palace was never finished, and it stood for only four years—on June 9, A.D. 68, Nero committed suicide after being convinced he was condemned by the Senate to die as a public enemy. His death brought to a close the Julio-Claudian dynasty that had begun with Augustus, and ended a reign distinguished by excessive lasciviousness, cruelty, and violence, and that led to civil war. The next three emperors ruled for only 18 months in total, and all were either murdered or committed suicide. It was not until December of A.D. 69, when Vespasian became emperor, that a period of relative calm that was to last more than a decade began.