Eroding Arctic coastline reveals human bones

Following a snowstorm, the sun makes an evening appearance in the bluffs that include the Ukkuqsi archaeological site in Barrow, Alaska. Sand bags help protect the site, which once again yielded human remains following a late-August storm. (Erik Hill/Alaska Dispatch News)
Following a snowstorm, the sun makes an evening appearance in the bluffs that include the Ukkuqsi archaeological site in Barrow, Alaska. Sand bags help protect the site, which once again yielded human remains following a late-August storm. (Erik Hill/Alaska Dispatch News)
As Arctic Ocean waves from summer and fall storms eat away at Barrow’s bluffs, they take land from the living — and sometimes they expose the dead.

Last month, local archaeologist Anne Jensen anchored herself to two firefighters and rappelled down a mound being eroded by those waves. She found bones and the remains of a collapsed underground house about to break free from the dirt.

The city feared that the crumbling historical site could reveal a burial ground, as has happened in the past, and called for an emergency evaluation. Another archaeologist (Jensen was away on a trip) found human teeth, upper vertebrae and a jaw, as well as ivory carvings and the remains of a sled made of baleen.

But because archaeologists found only parts of a skeleton, it’s unclear whether the remains were from a burial — or even if they’re from the same person.

“Who knows where the rest of him is,” Jensen said. The bluffs morph into something like an S-shape as they erode, she explained; they start to form a protruding “gut” toward the base, while the tundra on top can remain intact and the area just below it topples down to be eaten by the ocean. “He’s probably scattered all over.”

Long history

Jensen has a close relationship with this site, called Ukkuqsi. In 1994, she found the body of an Inupiat girl in a meat cellar; the girl had likely died from pneumonia hundreds of years ago, and her family may have improvised a burial. About 12 years before that, at a site nearby called Mound 44, archaeologists unearthed the remains of a group now referred to as the frozen family — several people who likely died at the same time from a natural disaster.

In fact, most of Barrow is on top of some kind of archaeological site, whether a sod house or a graveyard. And this particular bluff, which at one time was big enough to host modern ceremonies at which whale meat was distributed after a successful hunt, is among dozens of archaeological sites speckled through Arctic Alaska. Pointing to a map, Jensen ticked off more than a dozen, describing their current states. Some are gone completely, “and almost all of the rest are eroding,” she said, so finding remains in Barrow and at other sites is not a surprise. It’s become part of her job.

“Point Hope, it’s gone. They’ve lost the Birnirk entirely,” she said. Remains at these sites were lost to erosion before the land was excavated. “We’re trying to find a way to deal with this better.”

Climate & erosion

The coastline of Alaska’s North Slope is eroding at some of the fastest rates in the nation, and windy summer and fall storms are a bigger threat than in the past because sea ice is retreating for longer periods, said John Lingaas, a Fairbanks-based National Weather Service meteorologist.

“The thing that allows the storms to be as impactful as they are is that the edge of the ice is quite a ways away, and we’ve got more open water during the open-water time,” Lingaas said. “Two months from now when it’s all iced in, you can have storm after storm after storm. The ice has moved in and it’s protecting the coastline. It’s another windy storm and all, but it’s not producing waves that affect the erosion.”

When a storm exposes human remains in Barrow, there isn’t an established protocol — except to call Jensen, who is a busy woman. If Jensen and whoever the property owner is — in this case, the city — can arrange to excavate bones before the ocean whisks them away, they are usually given to the federally recognized Native Village of Barrow for repatriation. The city has asked the village to include the most recent set of remains in the next annual reburial.

These remains are the first that Flossie Mongoyak, realty director at the Native Village of Barrow, has handled that may not have come from a grave. In July, Mongoyak organized the annual repatriation at the New Cemetery, a short drive out of town, where the young girl unearthed in Jensen’s previous excavation and the family now rest. During the ceremony, the remains of about 50 people repatriated from a handful of museums in the U.S. were buried.

Mongoyak is waiting to see if there are more remains from Barrow that she can gather for next year’s reburial. The big question, she said, is whether they will get a headstone.

Protecting community’s heritage

Meanwhile, the North Slope Borough has tried to protect Ukkuqsi with sandbags, preserving, for now, the possibility of further excavation. But that could jeopardize permafrost that supports a nearby road.

“Any time that you excavate in the permafrost, you kind of destroy the permafrost, and it’s more susceptible to erosion,” said Mary Beth Timm, working for the North Slope Borough’s Department of Inupiat History, Language and Culture, the lead agency working with remains.

Borough workers last week said they had filled more than 1,200 bags with sand to help protect bluffs in Barrow, such as Ukkuqsi.

But the temporary fix might not be enough for these crumbling sites or the people living near it. Jensen recalled when a man whose house is closest to Ukkuqsi had to pull it away from the approaching cliff.

“He lost his front yard in the process,” she said.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Canadian polar photographer: Arctic change is a “wake-up” call, Radio Canada International

Finland:  Archaeologists examine site in Finland’s Arctic, Yle News

Greenland:  Feature Interview – Canadian artist explores Greenland’s past, Eye on the Arctic

Norway:  History revealed by WW2 wrecks in Norway’s Arctic fjords, Barents Observer

United States:  Archaeologists uncover pre-contact Inupiat village near Kiana, Alaska, Alaska Public Radio Network


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