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1.2: Arctic Alaska

  • Page ID
    • Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts
    • Washington University in St. Louis, University of Rochester, Stanford University and Harvard University

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    In ancient times, highly refined art forms also flourished in coastal Alaska, along the northern Bering Sea. Here, most of the works that have survived are small objects of bone and walrus ivory, made by hunters who lived in villages at the edge of the sea. The sea provided almost everything these people used in life as well as art: fish and marine mammals for food, clothing, and carving materials. Whereas the first archaeological goods in Alaska date from around 4000 years ago, it was only late in the first millennium B.C.E. that a culture distinguished principally by fine artistry-the Old Bering Sea Culture (circa 500 B.C.E. to 500 C.E.)-came into being.

    Old Bering Sea Culture

    Evidence from archaeology and from anthropological research among historic Eskimoan peoples illuminates the lives of these ancient ivory carvers. They were primarily hunters of sea mammals, especially walruses. The thick, sturdy hides they brought home provided materials for boats, shelter, and clothing. The durable and handsome tusks were carved for artistic value and for practical and spiritual use. While more perishable materials disintegrated long ago, the strong dentine material of walrus tusks has survived through the centuries, testifying to the rich artistic inventory of ancient peoples of northern Alaska. In these artifacts, hunting technology, religion, and artistic skill are inseparable. Tools such as harpoons were beautifully carved and incised, probably to attract game animals, as some historic Native groups believed. Elegantly formed hunting implements and amulets were thought to increase the success of the hunt; in recent decades, indigenous Arctic hunters have declared that animals are pleased to be hunted with beautiful weapons!

    The key role played by the hunt in an Arctic environment, where there was no agriculture, explains the centrality of shamanism in both ancient and more recent times. Religious intermediaries called shamans were thought to have the unique power to contact potent animal spirits who helped control the hunt. They thus performed a function similar to that of the political spiritual leaders in Mississippian cultures, though in a less hierarchical context (see fig. 1.1). In the far north, religion was a much more individualistic pursuit than it was in the hierarchical Mississippian society.

    Figure 1.13: Okvik Eskimo figure, Okvik, Alaska, 200 B.C.E.- l00 C. E. Ivory, 6¾ in (17 cm). University of Alaska Museum, Fairbanks, Alaska.

    The tiny female amulet shown here (fig. 1.13) is less than 7 inches tall. Though it has feet, it does not stand on its own, but was meant to be held in the hand or strung on a line as an ornament. As with all ancient ivory, its creamy white color has weathered to a rich mottled amber hue. The body's surface is incised with circles and lines that resemble the body tattooing practiced by Eskimo women until a century ago (indeed, one frozen, desiccated woman's body, dating from approximately 400 C.E., discovered on St. Lawrence Island, has such tattoos on her hands and arms). On the figurine, these designs call attention to her breasts, abdomen, and pubic area, suggesting women's powers of procreation. Could it have been a charm used by a female shaman in ceremonies for pregnancy or childbirth?

    lpiutak Stage

    Figure 1.14: Zoomorphic rake, Ipiutak, Point Spencer, Seward Peninsula, Alaska, 450-850 c.E. Walrus ivory, 10¼ in (26 cm). University of Alaska Museum, Fairbanks, Alaska.
    Figure 1.14: Zoomorphic rake, Ipiutak, Point Spencer, Seward Peninsula, Alaska, 450-850 c.E. Walrus ivory, 10¼ in (26 cm). University of Alaska Museum, Fairbanks, Alaska.

    From a slightly later period (fifth-ninth centuries C.E.), named after the Bering Sea culture that flourished in this period, comes the so-called rake (fig. 1.14), surely a ceremonial tool rather than a practical one. Its daggerlike handle has a small seal-head knob. The top of the implement appears at first glance to be a face with a long horizontal mouth, whose teeth (the prongs of the rake) clamp into a hinged jaw. All of these movable parts were painstakingly carved from a single ivory tusk. Close examination of the elaborately carved head above the horizontal mouth of the tool reveals that it is a bear with two eyes and a snout. Around the bear's head are clusters of smaller seal heads. If the implement is turned upside down, the bear's eyes become those of a human, with a small nose between them, on what would be the bear's cranial ridge. One archaeologist has described this characteristic of Old Bering Sea art as "polyiconic," meaning that it conjoins multiple images in one form, thus expressing the Native principle of the fluid interconnectedness of human, animal, and spiritual realms. Ancient Eskimoan peoples emigrated from Siberia only four thousand years ago (the last Amerindian peoples to cross over from Asia), and they share many linguistic traits, religious beliefs, materials, and artistic styles with ancient peoples of Asia. In the sinuous, curvilinear style of art combining fantastic animals with humanlike faces, some scholars see links with the art of the Shang and Chou dynasties of China (1766-256 B.C.E.), and with the Scythian art style of the nomadic hunters who roamed from the Black Sea across Siberia from the ninth century B.C.E. to the second century C.E. In both of these cultures, shamanism and a reverence for the spiritual power of animals were prevalent. Ancient Eskimos even made occasional use of iron from Japan in their art- and tool making, but this probably came either from North Siberian middlemen or from Japanese shipwrecks. Thus, at the northernmost extremity of North America, we find evidence of encounter and exchange between seemingly remote cultures.

    This page titled 1.2: Arctic Alaska is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts.