five archaeological properties comprising the Gambell Sites represent
two thousand years of Eskimo history on Saint Lawrence Island. These
sites were critical in establishing the chronology of human habitation
on the island. The prehistoric cultural phases of Okvik, Old Bering
Sea, Punuk, Birnirk, and Thule, described by archaeologists based
on excavations at the Gambell Sites, have provided a basis for other
archaeological research in the Bering Sea region.
The five sites, named Hillside, Mayughaaq,
Ayveghyaget, Old Gambell, and Seklowaghyag, are located on Saint
Lawrence Island in the Bering Strait, near the town of Gambell,
a Yupik Eskimo community. Archaeological excavations at several
of the sites, beginning in 1927 and continuing into the 1930s,
uncovered the first evidence of the prehistoric inhabitants of
the island. Additional excavations at the Gambell Sites were undertaken
in the late 1960s and the early 1970s.
National Historic Landmarks photograph, by Susan Morton.
On the basis of this work, the basic sequence
of the cultures on the island was established. The Gambell Sites
have been classified by archaeologists as part of the maritime-oriented
Thule tradition (also called Northern Maritime or Neo-Eskimo),
that extended over an area of the Arctic from northeast Siberia
to Greenland. The Thule tradition first appeared in the earliest
cultures of the Bering Strait islands. Among other traits, cultures
of this tradition relied heavily on marine resources, especially
the open water hunting of sea mammals. Settlements of the Okvik
and Old Bering Sea cultures, the earliest cultures of the Thule
tradition, appeared on Saint Lawrence Island approximately 2,000
years ago. Okvik and Old Bering Sea remains were subsequently
found on other islands of the Bering Strait and on the coast of
Siberia. These cultures were succeeded by the Punuk culture which
focused on both coastal and marine resources. The succeeding Birnirk
culture was possibly influenced by Old Bering Sea and Okvik, but
focused on land resources in addition to marine ones. From Birnirk,
the historically-documented Eskimo cultures developed.
at Ayveghyaget, 1965.
National Historic Landmarks photograph, by Paul J.F. Schumacher.
At the Hillside site, remains of the
Okvik and Old Bering Sea cultures were uncovered. Several winter
houses and associated middens were excavated which dated to
Okvik and Old Bering Sea occupations. The Mayughaaq site, a
permanent village, contained numerous winter house sites, an
associated midden mound, and many burials. The site represents
a transitional period between the Old Bering Sea culture and
the Punuk culture. The Ayveghyaget site was a Punuk village,
occupied over a lengthy period, with a midden mound and cemetery.
The Old Gambell and Seklowaghyag sites consisted of a midden
representing a lengthy occupation, starting with the Punuk culture
and ending in the early twentieth century.
The Gambell Sites were designated a National
Historic Landmark in 1962. This designation recognized their
importance in establishing a chronological sequence of cultures
on Saint Lawrence Island and in regional prehistory. Additionally,
the sites are important to the discipline of archaeology, as
the first in the greater Bering Strait region to be scientifically
investigated and reported. It was noted at the time of this
designation, however, that all of the sites except Hillside
had been significantly disturbed.
The poor condition of the sites was caused
not only by the destructive process of archaeology, but who
also by local residents digging to recover old ivory. For almost
as long as archaeologists have worked at the sites, residents
of Gambell have been excavating as well. This pursuit was partly
inspired by Otto Geist's archaeological work in the 1920s, during
which he paid local diggers according to the amount of ivory
they uncovered, but trade in ivory has always been a facet of
European contact with the islanders.
Few salaried jobs or sources of cash
income exist on the island, yet to support a contemporary lifestyle,
cash is needed to purchase the necessities of life. The decline
of economic opportunities in other areas, such as trapping,
has made the recycling' of ivory from archaeological sites
an attractive opportunity. Restrictions on the sale of fresh
walrus ivory, under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act,
have also acted to accelerate the destruction of the sites.
Both worked and unworked ivory is recovered
from the sites and much of this material is sold off the island
to ivory dealers. Sivuqaq, Inc., the native corporation that
owns part of the island, has participated in this ivory trade
as a broker since 1983, attempting to maximize the residents'
return on the excavated ivory. In 1984, the corporation commissioned
a study of archaeological sites on the island to assess their
remaining value as cultural and scientific resources and to
consider site conservation and museum possibilities. As a result
of the ongoing losses to these sites, however, the National
Historic Landmark designation for the Gambell Sites was withdrawn
on January 13, 1989. The Old Gambell and Seklowaghyag sites
were removed from the National Register of Historic Places,
but Miyowagh, Hillside, and Ayveghyaget were believed to have
continuing research potential and therefore remain listed in
the National Register.
Mining of the sites has continued since
the withdrawal of the Landmark designation. In a 1993 Journal
of Field Archaeology article, David Staley described the
continuing use of St. Lawrence Island archaeological sites as
a source of cash income for the residents. Observing and discussing
the activity with the diggers, Staley found that the digging
was primarily motivated by economics, but that other factors,
such as tradition, recreation, and even education played a part.
Many Gambell residents feel that they are recovering their heritage
and dispute the exclusivity of archaeologists to produce information
about their past. Removal of artifacts from the sites by archaeologists
is viewed as both a cultural and an economic loss for the residents.
site, 1985. Local digger (at center) amidst holes excavated
to recover ivory.
National Historic Landmarks photograph, by Susan Morton.