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Science Improves When Archaeologists Work With Locals

January 1997

When archaeologists Anne Jensen, Glenn Sheehan and Greg Reinhardt uncovered ancient human remains on the coast of the Arctic Ocean in Alaska, they consulted with the local Native community of Wainwright. With the Elders' approval, the scientists studied the remains and prepared them for reburial.

At the reburial service, a Native minister said he was glad to have his ancestors safe and also pleased with the research that had been done.

"We are now forgetting some things these old people knew and we want to thank these archaeologists for helping us to find and remember some of these things," he said.

Jensen and Sheehan, the NSF-funded husband-and-wife team who are now at Ilisagvik College in Barrow, Alaska, and Reinhardt, of the University of Indianapolis, work hard at gaining this good will. They hold presentations for the local public before reporting their work to the scientific community. They invite local students to earn credit through excavation-site work, encourage volunteers, and set up junior archaeologist programs. Jensen and Sheehan also have created two traveling exhibits.

At a minimum, says Jensen, holding local presentations is common courtesy. But, she adds, the interaction also makes for better science. "Because we talk with the Elders, we can go to them and ask how a particular artifact was used."

What the archaeologists are learning is that Native whalers have thrived on the Arctic coast for up to 1,600 years. With the harpoons, baleen toboggans, sealskin bags and animal bones that they're finding, the team is able to reconstruct the various lives of the whalers.

For example, just as the modern world is facing a climate change, these whalers went through several climate shifts. Approximately 800 years ago, the Arctic coast cooled enough to keep ice in the coastal ocean waters year round.

The effect was hard on the whalers, Jensen and Sheehan hypothesize in one of their traveling exhibits. Some people died, some gave up whaling, and the others began to adjust to living in a village.

In another exhibit, the scientists discuss Agnaiyaaq, a six-year-old girl who lived and died in that time period. Discovered in 1994, Agnaiyaaq was buried in a bird-skin parka with a toboggan nearby. Her body was perfectly preserved in a block of clear ice.

An autopsy revealed she suffered from a debilitating form of emphysema caused by a rare genetic disease. Her family probably pulled her around on the toboggan, village Elders and the scientists agree.

Agnaiyaaq's remains offer a rare glimpse into early Arctic life. They also show the generosity of her people.

"Everybody [in the village] would have realized that this child was not going to be a contributing economic member of the household or the society," Sheehan said in a 1995 interview, "and yet she was cared for."

The NSF Exhibit Center displayed Jensen's and Sheehan's work in the fall of 1996.


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