Walakpa Archaeology Rapid Response Project

The Walakpa archaeological site, located 18 km southwest Barrow, Alaska, is considered a critically important site by the community of Barrow and by archaeologists.  Walakpa, or Ualiqpaa, is a multi-component site comprised of a series of mounds and associated midden deposits dating to at least 1200 years ago and encompassing a major cultural transition in the western North American Arctic – the migration and evolution of Birnirk and Thule cultures.  Research at the site in the 1960s uncovered a rich and well-preserved record of past Arctic lifeways and environment.  Stanford identified 17 levels of human occupation at the site, capturing what was ultimately interpreted as a gradual transition from the first Neoeskimo people to migrate from eastern Beringia, the Birnirk peoples, to the later Thule peoples who rapidly populated the North American Arctic and who were the direct ancestors of modern Inupiat people.  Stanford also identified a possible earlier Arctic Small Tool Tradition (ASTt) occupation at the site, termed Walakpa Denbigh.  If the ASTt occupation is confirmed, the record at Walakpa spans the entire occupation of the Arctic, over 4000 years.  The site would encompass two major waves of migration and multiple episodes of significant cultural transition.

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PSU students in eroding area of Walakpa site, summer 2016 (Photo by Patrick Reed)

Unfortunately, after years of relative stability, the site is now in imminent danger from increased coastal erosion due to northern climate change.  Reduced sea ice cover and increased storm frequency, coupled with melting permafrost, are rapidly devastating the North Slope archaeological record and the Walakpa site.  Recovery efforts at the site, led by Anne Jensen of the Ukpeaġvik Inupiat Corporation (UIC) since 2013, identified several occupation features and associated activity areas, and abundant and rapidly decomposing organic materials (e.g. ancient animal bones, wooden and osseous artifacts, and plant material).  A lower paleosol that may correspond to Stanford’s ASTt level was also identified in 2013.  Erosion continues and by fall 2014, at least 14 more meters of the site were lost to the sea during a single storm event; a house identified in 2013 and at least  30% of the area excavated by Stanford in the 1960s were lost.  The storm exposed additional artifacts and features at the site; it is also apparent that areas of the site remain intact and significant research potential remains.

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Crew uncovering a feature at the Walakpa site, summer 2016 (Photo by Patrick Reed)

Walakpa is but one of many disappearing Arctic archaeological sites, but the research potential and importance of the site to the local community has spurred a large volunteer effort and interest in re-establishing a program of research at Walakpa.  In summer 2016, Portland State University graduate students joined a research team at the site to conduct research and salvage work; participants included researchers from the University of Washington, University of Montana, Université Paris 1 – Panthéon Sorbonne, Bard College, and Yale Peabody Museum.   Summer 2016 goals were to: 1) to recover rapidly eroding materials from the site, including human remains, and stabilize them for study, 2) to establish the extent of intact deposits remaining at the site, and 3) to recover samples from intact areas of the site for additional analysis and radiocarbon dating.  This effort established a foundation for additional research at the site and on the existing collections.

More information about the project is available here.