In an increasingly impersonal world where communication often happens behind a screen and information is just a click away, one Hampden-Sydney professor gets personal and looks to the past to save some of the world’s most endangered cultural sites.
Although he’s a fixture on campus during the academic year, come summer you’ll have to travel more than 4,000 miles to find Dr. Sean Gleason, assistant professor of rhetoric and associate director of the Ferguson Center for Public Speaking at Hampden-Sydney College. Each summer, Gleason uses his expertise in the study of oral histories to identify and preserve historical sites of the Yupiit tribe in Alaska’s Yukon River Delta.
Gleason’s work is part of a team effort: he gathers oral histories from Yupiit elders about cultural places of importance, then anthropologists and archaeologists cross-reference the oral histories and use remote sensing technology to identify possible physical locations of sites mentioned in the stories. Gleason and the team can then assess environmental threats to the cultural sites and use this data to inform their preservation efforts, focusing on the most endangered sites first. All material gathered during these excavations is cleaned, preserved, and held at the Nunalleq Heritage and Cultural Center in Quinhagak, Alaska.
The work of the Nunalleq Heritage and Cultural Center, which has been featured in National Geographic, is increasingly important. As permafrost melts and sea levels rise, previously frozen and preserved artifacts are beginning to thaw and rot away, the rich history of the Yupiit disappearing along with them. Without the study of oral rhetoric traditions, the modern world may never learn of these sites’ existence, therefore losing valuable insight into how these ancient cultures lived and died. Through the efforts of Gleason and his colleagues, notably lead archaeologist Dr. Richard Knecht from the University of Aberdeen, more than 80,000 artifacts have been unearthed and preserved—the largest collection of Yup’ik relics to date.