Threatened Heritage and Community Archaeology on Alaska’s North Slope

The North Slope of Alaska is home to many coastal sites. Due to the cold climate, preservation is spectacular. The sites have generally been considered stable. However, the changing climate has altered the situation. Erosion rates have increased tremendously, due to warming permafrost, sea ice retreat and longer ice-free seasons. For example, measured coastal retreat at one site is averaging 10 m a year. Coastal erosion revealed a house at another site. Funding was sought to excavate the structure, but a single storm the next autumn removed over 30 meters of the site and destroyed the structure. North Slope excavation and post-excavation work are extraordinarily expensive, due to remote locations and the huge volumes of organic materials recovered. Current funding mechanisms do not lend themselves to such situations, as the process is such that funds cannot be available during the next field season, even if a successful proposal is prepared on very short notice. Many of the sites are on private land, so no agency has responsibility for the heritage resources. North Slope residents are very concerned, as these sites represent their cultural heritage. There is a municipal government agency that has heritage responsibilities, but they cannot handle the issue alone. A variety of avenues for community participation are being developed to provide opportunities for members of the public to assist in protecting their heritage.