Archaeologists Race Against Climate Change to Save Cultural Treasures

By Hannah Hoag | March 22, 2016 1:40 pm

The remains of a 500-year-old Inuvialuit village are sliding into the ocean as the coast gives way. Archaeologists are moving quickly to excavate the most impressive of the semi-subterranean dwellings to understand the people who lived there. (Credit: Max Friesen)

(This post originally appeared in the brand new, online anthropology magazine SAPIENS. Follow @SAPIENS_org on Twitter to discover more of their work.) 

On a bright and buggy day in July 2014, Max Friesen, whiskered and encased in denim and Gore-Tex, inched across a stretch of tundra overlooking the East Channel of the Mackenzie River, where it unravels into the Arctic Ocean. The archaeologist pushed his way through a tangle of willow brush that grew thick atop the frozen soil sloping towards the ocean.

Friesen was searching for signs of a long-buried house, feeling for the berms and sharply defined depressions in the ground that pointed to subterranean walls and rooms. The work was difficult and stressful. Shrubs obscured the ground. Friesen had to trust that what he felt beneath his boots was in fact the structure of a large home hundreds of years old.

“I was under horrible pressure,” says Friesen from his office at the University of Toronto a year later. “I had this crew of 10 that I wanted to get digging. But if you make a mistake, you’ve devoted 10 people’s labor for weeks at incredibly high costs to get the project going, and if you came down on a crappy house it would be really terrible.”

Unearthing a Cruciform House

But Friesen’s team was not disappointed. They unearthed an enormous cruciform (cross-shaped) pit house built about 400 years ago by the Inuvialuit, the Inuit living in what is now northwestern Canada. Portions of other cruciform houses have been recovered before, but this house is the largest and best preserved one to be fully excavated and examined with modern techniques. Cruciform houses are spoken of in early histories, by elders, and in the writings of early explorers, but none have been studied by archaeologists in such detail, says Friesen. “Nobody since the 19th century has seen these houses.”

The house is part of a settlement called Kuukpak, a 500-year-old hunting village located above the Arctic Circle in Canada’s Northwest Territories and occupied until the end of the 19th century. Friesen knows Kuukpak well. He first traveled there in 1986 when he was a graduate student, part of a team led by Charles (Chuck) Arnold. At the time, Arnold was the senior archaeologist for the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife. “Kuukpak was the largest archaeological site that I had ever witnessed,” says Arnold.

Exploring the site as a student was transformative, says Friesen, now in his early 50s. “It opened my eyes to the rich history, the incredible preservation of delicate artifacts, and the close relationship between the environment and human settlement.”


As the coast erodes, beluga bones are washing from archaeological sites onto the beach. (Credit: Max Friesen)

Erosion, permafrost thaw, and rising sea levels brought on by modern climate change are dragging ancient homes and other artifacts into the sea and leaving them exposed to rot on land. The coastline along the Beaufort Sea has been eroding for thousands of years, but in recent decades its contours are being reshaped more swiftly—by as much as 20 meters in a single storm.

“The people in Tuktoyaktuk are horrifyingly aware of the erosion. They go out in the summers to hunt and fish and they see the sites eroding,” says Friesen. The effects of climate change are more severe in the Arctic, where air temperatures are warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. Historical villages are being swallowed whole, along with piles of unstudied artifacts from early Inuvialuit culture. After decades away, Friesen has returned to Kuukpak to record the details of the settlement before it is lost to the sea. Coastal archaeological sites like Kuukpak dot the Mackenzie Delta region, but many are unexplored—and they are in the midst of being destroyed by an unrelenting force.

“If you take the sum of the impacts, the thawing permafrost and the coastal erosion of the high Arctic, the sum of that archaeological loss is really awful,” says Tom Andrews, territorial archaeologist for the Northwest Territories government. “It’s really a disaster.”

Racing Climate Change

The rapidly shifting climate has transformed views about archaeology in the region, and the Inuvialuit have embraced the renewed activity. In the past, some elders opposed excavating archaeological sites because artifacts were often shuttled away to museums and research centers in the south. “Now, because we’re losing the sites, [the Inuvialuit] are all for the archaeology,” says Catherine Cockney, the manager of the Inuvialuit Cultural Resource Centre in Inuvik, Northwest Territories.

In 2013, Friesen began a survey of the western Canadian Arctic to understand which settlement sites were under threat from climate change. He worked with the resource center to identify which sites the Inuvialuit consider to be most important, based on their oral histories, and which ones are most threatened by climate change. Kuukpak topped the list.


The Mackenzie Delta region, where the longest river system in Canada empties into the Arctic Ocean, provided the people of Kuukpak with bountiful fishing, hunting, and whaling grounds. (Credit: Catherine Gilman)

Kuukpak sits on the Mackenzie Delta, and its name means “big river.” From 1500 to 1900, it was the main winter village for the Kuukpangmiut—the people of Kuukpak—a large and powerful regional group. Kuukpak was probably the largest village in the Inuvialuit region—and in all of Arctic Canada—stretching almost a kilometer along the bank of the Mackenzie. “It would have been the site of the biggest hunting events, ceremonies, and social activities,” says Friesen.

The people who lived in Kuukpak traded goods, arranged marriages, and organized social gatherings with other Inuvialuit groups living in the western Canadian Arctic. Each group—eight in all—had its own central village and defended its territory. They had distinct dialects and sewed, dyed, and decorated their clothes in different styles, says Cockney.

The location of Kuukpak, where the Mackenzie River spills into the sea, provided the families living there with an abundance of food. They had access to caribou on the mainland and fish in the rivers and creeks. But it was the beluga whales that were the real draw.

When the belugas came close to shore, lines of kayakers paddled out to the mouth of the bay to drive the whales into the shallows where they speared the animals. According to historical accounts from the late 1800s, as many as 300 belugas were harvested in a single summer. The women butchered the animals, separating their dark red meat from the thick skin and fat. The inner layer of skin and meat was eaten. The blubber was often rendered into cooking oil. The meat was hung to dry and later stocked in caches dug deep into the permafrost.


Archaeological sites chronicling the Canadian Arctic’s history are scattered across the Mackenzie Delta. (Credit: Adam Jones/Wikimedia Commons)

The Kuukpangmiut transformed the inner layer of beluga skin into leather and used it for boat covers and footwear.In the spring, belugas swim from the Bering Sea along Alaska’s north coast towards the Mackenzie. The stocky white whales, weighing as much as 1,500 kilograms and measuring up to 6 meters in length, arrive in the estuary in late June or early July seeking out the warmer and less salty water to molt, feed, and give birth. The calves are born gray or brown, and their color fades to white as they mature. “Kuukpak is in exactly the perfect spot to hunt beluga whales,” says Friesen. “There are enormous shallows. You can walk out quite a ways and be only up to your knees.”

In the winter, during the darkest months—when the sun barely grazed the horizon—the families went to Kuukpak and lived in sod houses, embedded into the permafrost, with walls, floors, and the roof built with driftwood plucked from the Mackenzie River.

Rarely Studied, Poorly Understood

When Friesen returned to Kuukpak during the summer of 2014, he found a visibly crumbling coastline and the site thick with stunted willows. The team worked tirelessly for six weeks, often in a cold drizzle, to uncover the cruciform house. The collapsed house was wedged deep in the permafrost, so digging it out was laborious. But slowly, the structure began to surface. “It was spectacular to see it come up,” says Friesen.

Inside, Friesen and his team found hundreds of artifacts related to hunting, clothing production, food preparation, and house construction, along with thousands of animal bones. Arrowheads and harpoon heads, needles and stone scrapers, ulus (knives with a curved rocker edge) and snow knives littered the site. Trade goods, including soapstone and copper, were also preserved inside the house.


After clearing the thick willow brush, archaeologist Max Friesen and his team began excavating Kuukpak. (Credit: Max Friesen)

The artifacts, combined with the bones of beluga whales, fish, caribou, migratory birds, and seal suggest that the people living there—and their society—were well off. “It was a rich, rich house,” says Friesen.The house is unusually large. Shaped like a long cross, it has a central living area surrounded by three raised alcoves. An extended tunnel provided access to the house but kept the cold air out in the winter. The main room measures 6 to 7 meters wide and 5 to 6 meters long. Thirty people may have once lived in the house. Friesen says this type of winter house was well known in Inuvialuit traditional knowledge, but has rarely been studied and is poorly understood.

But the house was so large that Friesen and his team were unable to complete the excavation in 2014. At the end of the field season, they backfilled the pit to preserve the contents. They plan to finish the dig this summer and add artifacts to their collection before completing the analysis. Friesen is eager to inspect the artifacts from each of the three alcoves to understand who lived there and how the alcoves were used.

Before leaving in 2014, Friesen’s team started excavating a house on a bank that had already begun to tip onto the beach. On the floor and on a bench inside, they found a treasure: 10 trade beads dating to the 1800s. Oral history indicated that Kuukpak had been occupied until the mid- to late 19th century, but archaeologists lacked any proof until that moment.

In the late 1800s, Kuukpak was abandoned, its population likely decimated by infectious disease brought by interactions with European whalers who overwintered close to Inuvialuit settlements. “Until now, there has never been a house, a nice sealed context, that allows us to look at what degree, which aspects of society were changing at this time,” says Friesen.


Near a bench at the rear of a centuries-old cruciform house in Kuukpak, Friesen and his team found a small cache of artifacts that include a fish hook (left) made of an antler shank with a barb made of bone, a comb (next to the fish hook), and a large slate ulu blade (right). (Credit: Max Friesen)

Friesen estimates that 40 houses once stood at Kuukpak, though only 23 dwellings remain. The rest have been lost to the ocean. Looking up from the beach, driftwood, beluga bones, and other objects jut out from the overhang. They’re a reminder of the village’s distinction—and of how much is already gone.

There is no practical way to preserve Kuukpak. The sod houses are too delicate to relocate, and once they are exposed to air, they begin to rot. However, Peter Dawson, an archaeologist at the University of Calgary, has digitally scanned one of the exposed houses to create a permanent architectural record. In theory, a home could be reconstructed with modern driftwood and sod.

In 2014, Friesen hammered stakes into the ground at Kuukpak so that he could track the coastline’s rate of erosion, and in the summer of 2015 he stopped by to check on the site. One location, which had badly eroded in the past, was still stable, but the erosion edge of another had suddenly advanced by a meter in one year.“When I first came up here, there were people who had grown up in sod houses,” says Anne Jensen, an archaeologist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, who lives in Barrow. “But now the young ones have never seen that kind of house. The ability to go and set foot in one and see it—they have a much, much greater appreciation for how tough it was for their grandparents, and how incredible and cool they were.”

“I thought the house would last 10, 20, or 30 years, but maybe it’s only going to last for three years,” says Friesen. “And maybe it is the only remaining intact house from that period—anywhere.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
  • Uncle Al

    Three cheers to patriarchal European-derived Yahweh cultist cultural rapists desecrating Native American sacred buried dwellings.

    “And maybe it is the only remaining intact house from that period—anywhere.”” WAS

    • OWilson

      I say let’s start in Arlington. Dig ’em up!

      Has anybody any idea of the “grave goods” we could find there that would shed further light on how Clinton donor “Lawrence of Arlington” got to be Buried with a State Funeral there, with without ever serving in the Military? :)

    • Uncle Al

      Let’s add a contemporary citation: Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums Samuel J. Redman, Harvard University Press 2016, ISBN: 9780674660410. Cf: Japanese “scientific whaling.”

  • Zosha123

    This criminal level exaggeration is sickening.

  • OWilson

    The Earth’s land mass is relatively stable from tear to year, and there is always natural erosion where land meets sea.

    There are other areas that silt up and drain, to keep it all in balance.

    Many of the world’s most incredible archaeological finds, are the result of this natural erosion.

    It is not the “end of times” as portrayed in this article :)

    • Mike Richardson

      Whew, I’m glad you’ve figured it out Wilson. We just need to tell them it isn’t happening, and it won’t, right? Coastal erosion does happen naturally of course, though the fact that it’s been measurably increasing as a result of variables you choose to ignore, might concern those in more vulnerable areas. But just tell them it’s nothing to be concerned with — certainly a mud flat is emerging somewhere, perhaps, to make up for the rapid erosion that isn’t happening. Maybe in a delta of that river called Denial. 😉

      • OWilson

        More nonsense!

        Erosion cannot keep up with human reclamation efforts around the world which see whole countries and all waterfront cities, reclaiming land from the ocean at much higher rates than is lost.

        Whole cities, just about ALL major cities are expanding their weaterfronts, building even airports, military sites, on reclaimed land as we speak. See Wiki -“Reclamation”, and Dubai, and South Korea, not to mention Netherlands, – “miracles”.

        Or the new city for 3 million people being built in the ocean today in South Korea.

        Get out more. Get a life! Stop whining! Read a book!

        • Mike Richardson

          And you think that keeps pace with the overall loss of coastline to erosion? Wow. Clearly, you don’t live in Louisiana. We know better from experience — you know, getting out and experiencing life, as you suggested. Anyone with eyes (or satellite data) knows there’s a whole lot less of the state than there used to be, and we’re hardly the only place experiencing it. Perhaps you need to do a little more reading yourself, Wilson.

          • OWilson

            o, New Oreans is on a natural river flood plain. It averages 1 to 2 feet below sea level.

            Folks who live below sea level shouldn’t whine about water problems.

            Folks who live in Tornado Alley shouldn’rt whine about tornadoes.

            Folks who live underneath volcanoe shouldn’t whine about eruptions.

            Folks who live on the San Andeas Fault fault shouldn’t whine about.

            FGolks who live in deserts shouldn’y complain about l;ack of rain.

            But here’s what you can do. Just get in line with His Excellency Mugabe and the other long line of recipients to the U.N. redistribution program, and whine to them. Maybe they’ll send you some of your own U.S. Tax money back, because they don’t actually have any money of their own.

            It’s a roundabout solution, but that how government seems to work

          • Mike Richardson

            You’re rambling and ranting again, and displaying even more ignorance of the topic than usual. New Orleans, though below sea level, is actually protected from the erosion by the levee system — which ironically contributes to the erosion along what used to be the Mississippi River delta east and west of the current mouth of the river. Compare satellite photos of Louisiana from the 1970s to the present, and the loss of land/wetlands is readily apparent. Also, the original site picked for the city is above sea level. The French Quarter was one of the areas that remained dry following the Katrina levee breach — land speculators and poor urban planning led to the expansion of settlement into areas not well-protected from flooding, and the Army Corps of Engineers did not build a levee system adequate to the task. But it’s nice to see you can divert attention away from the fact that you were demonstrably wrong on the “more land reclaimed than lost” point to make irrelevant political jabs. Shows that hyper-partisanship just can’t be controlled, right? But you are at least correct in noting that erosion can and does reveal archeological sites, even if it does ultimately doom many of them to inundation and destruction.

          • OWilson

            I was talking about the world. Not your cherry picked dysfunctional little fiefdom in New Orleans.

            More world waterfront cities are adding to their lands by reclamation than they are losing. That is a fact!

            Look up WIKI, “Reclamation”.

            Look up the Netherlands miracle.

            Middle East


            South America

            Educate yourself :)

          • Mike Richardson

            Reading comprehension needs a little work there, buddy. New Orleans, as I said, is not the area experiencing the greatest problem with erosion — it’s the rest of the state, formerly built up by river delta. Indeed, in many places, land is being reclaimed by the sea. But in far many other places, it is being lost, a fact you can continue to deny along with the human impact on climate change, as is your right. Of course, it doesn’t mean that you actually are right. :)

          • OWilson

            Of course, “buddy”.

            With our comments, we can only let the readers decide for themselves.

            I’m happy with that :)

          • Mike Richardson

            I understand it quite a bit more than you do, apparently. But you do have the advantage of living in your own world, I suppose. :)

          • OWilson

            Mine is a world where we create productive jobs, for productive people, who pay the fat salaries, bonus and cushy pensions of folks like you who feed at the government trough.

            Don’t be too hard on it, without my world, you’d have to find a real job :)

          • Mike Richardson

            I’ve a real job, thank you very much, helping folks who need it. I’ll have to take your word for it that you’ve been productive, but as for the world you live in — well, it does seem to be one where science can be ignored, where politics “Trump” realistic solutions, and where you can inflate your sense of importance by appeal to popularity. But hey, if it’s working for you, why change. Meanwhile, in the real world, we do have to contend with coastal erosion and rising seas. Now you’ve pointed out some nifty reclamation projects, but I’ve yet to see where you’ve posted any credible citation that these handful of projects overwhelm the overall loss of coastline from erosion. And of course, many communities around the world lack the resources of the wealthy nations you named, so how exactly are they to deal with increasing rates of coastal erosion and sea level rise? I don’t think these folks have the luxury of simply denying the problem as you do.

          • OWilson

            So, just send them your money.

            Nobody is stopping you.

            But don’t steal it from the generations yet unborn.

            It never occurs to you folks in government (especially in government) that you could actually, gasp! be wrong?

            There’s the red flag right there. I’ve seen many national governments with that same certitude.

            There are still many around. It leads to oppression, constant military threats, jails full of political prisoners, even while their leaders are attending circus’s and baseball games with dutifully praising apologizing quislings.

            If I am wrong, it’s only my opinion that’s wrong.

            But you folks, self appointed experts that will never take criticism, on the other hand could do some serious damage, and put future generations in perpetual debt, to pay for you hair brained schemes.

            Government is like that.

            $22,000,000,000,000.00 and counting. Tick tick tick….

          • Mike Richardson

            I’ve no problem admitting when I’m wrong, Wilson. You, on the other hand, aren’t so willing to admit when the facts don’t support your opinions. As for that, “you’ll be dead,” comment, is that any different from the conservative attitude towards climate change and other environmental problems passed down to future generations? Debt can be negotiated with debtors — this planet’s natural systems aren’t so responsive to arguments and pleas. You can stand on the shoreline and argue with the waves, but the sea will claim its due, regardless. Maybe we should be doing less to aggravate that problem.

          • OWilson

            That “dead” comment is my satirical comment on the obscene attitude of government spenders. Figures it would go over your head :)

            I’m all for a balanced budget. Make the criminal spenders “negotiate” NOW for their loot, with real people, not the unborn.

            But then, you folks on the Left are killing the unborn at incredible rates too, they can’t negotiate their own life, much less the debt you aare piling on them, so your whole government accounting gets a little fuzzy.

            By the way it is not me who is trying to “stop the seas from rising” :)

            You are losing it again.


          • Mike Richardson

            Wilson, my points are coherent for anyone with basic comprehension and cognitive abilities not on the decline. If it sounds incoherent to you, that’s really not my problem. But I understand if you want to bug out when you’re on the losing end of a debate. It’s the usual response we’ve come to expect. Adios.

          • OWilson

            When, not IF, the low interest scam presently perpetrated to keep the Obama economy on life support, start to rise, try “negotiating” rates with the free world. Or even an annoyed China and Russia :)

            They could pull the plug anytime, you stopped bowing and scraping and transferring your jobs and technology to them.

            Today the Fed Interest Rate is 0.50%

            Imagine trying to pay off your spiraling debt at the rates created by Jimmy Carter, 18.7%.


            Maybe you might give a little thought to that if you really do have kids, and care for their future legacy.

            Or, you can just keep swallowing the cool aid, and recite along with them, out loud, obsessing about the weather 100 years from now, and join them in attacking folks like me with no financial interest in the problem who insist of pointing out the crude, unvarnished facts.

            Can’t you see the bait and switch political ponzi scheme?

            Tu está voluntariamente ciegos!

        • wanderingi

          “More nonsense!”
          At least you warned us that time…

      • wanderingi

        And, the fact that it has been permafrost for those 500 years, until now, makes all the blathering just the sound of ignorance.

        • OWilson

          Must have been warmer then :)

        • Mike Richardson

          You get used to it with Ol’Wilson.

          • OWilson

            AW! Mikey has a new friend :)

            Hope this one sticks around a little longer :)

          • Mike Richardson

            Hey, you’re still around, and I count as a friend anyone who can make me laugh, intentionally or otherwise. :)

          • wanderingi

            Not if you do… owie


The Crux

A collection of bright and big ideas about timely and important science from a community of experts.

See More


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar