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eskimo artefacts for national geographic

Melting permafrost and coastal storms are destroying a trove of Eskimo artefacts from the 14th-17th centuries in Nunalleq, four hundred miles west of Anchorage, Alaska.

Dr Rick Knecht of the University of Aberdeen and his team have over 20,000 items to sort through, filling cool boxes and drawers from floor-to-ceiling in his lab. Archaeologists on the dig have each found a museum-quality piece everyday, on typical digs they would be happy to find one in a whole season.

To make life easier for the shoot, Rick opened a drawer of items, already tagged and preserved. They were perfect in detail and craft- walrus ivory rings, caribou harpoon points and driftwood ceremonial dolls. Tupperware boxes contained wooden items, still damp and awaiting preservation. In the drawer, a grid of smaller boxes each held individual treasures for the photographer to choose.

I was delighted by the faces on wooden dolls.  Each could represent a specific relative unable to travel to events, or they could connect Eskimos with the spirit realm or they were simply used just to keep children entertained. They looked brilliant and only simple light was needed to bring out their animated expressions. 

I was drawn to the icons of their prey, miniature beluga and seals carved from antler as tributes of thanks for animals the people had been given for food and material. I introduced the actual-size ceremonial mask which dominated the smaller pieces. By this stage, hours had passed and my knees and back ached from jumping around on the table and the aftermath of football game the night before.  I sensed I was getting somewhere so I did a stretch, drank some water and carried on.

Rick's systematic sorting and classification inspired a visual structure to tell the story of village life. My mind wandered. I was day-dreaming about life in Alaska in the 14th century- imagining the gentle weathered hands that carved the animals I held. During the dig, Rick told me, local people would study a piece and the next day bring in a perfect copy someone had carved overnight. The dig team and local community collaborated closely to trace the skills and stories of Eskimo people and ensuring the continuity of artistic skill and culture.  Once finished, the artefacts will return to Alaska to a safer home near where they fell. 

After centuries locked away in frozen soils, I am thankful these precious artefacts have not been lost to their ancestors or to the wider world. 

subjects: behind the photo  on the road  process  tearsheets

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