Art of the Old Bering Sea Cultures

By Sean Mooney

T he seat of Paleo-Eskimo “Old Bering Sea” culture was St. Lawrence Island, Alaska (Sivuqaq, in Siberian Yupik language), which sits near the southern entrance to the Bering Strait. It is the sixth largest island in US territory, being approximately ninety miles wide and twenty-two miles across, with a mountain 2000 feet high. People have inhabited the island for at least 3,000 years, and possibly millennia longer. Today, it is home to only two permanent villages, Savoonga and Gambell (traditionally known as Sivuqaq, the name also applied to the entire island), with a total population of less than 800 inhabitants. As recently as the mid 19th century, there were more than 2000 people living there, scattered across at least ten permanent villages, but a great famine in 1878-80 decimated the population. During the ancient Old Bering Sea cultural phases, coastal villages were estimated to have been no more than 100 or 200 people, as they are in many Alaskan coastal settlements today. Nonetheless, St. Lawrence Island sits along the migratory path of walrus, whale, seal and innumerable bird species, providing life-sustaining resources in the midst of what would otherwise be a harsh arctic environment.

St. Lawrence Island holds several important archeological sites, most notably the Kukulik mound near Savoonga, excavated by Otto Geist between 1928 and 1936, and the Okvik and Punuk sites, excavated by Geist and Henry B. Collins in the 1930s. Other ancient village sites were excavated by Collins and others near Gambell, at the western side of the island. Additional archeological sites on the nearby Siberian coast have been under excavation for decades (St. Lawrence Island lies much closer to Siberia than to mainland Alaska, and its current inhabitants are culturally Siberian Yupik, rather than Iñupiat, their cousins on the Alaskan mainland). From these archeological digs, a system of dating artifacts by a confluence of depth found and corresponding stylistic variations was developed by Collins, dividing them into a system of cultural phases. For lack of different terminology, we still use these stylistic distinctions today as naming conventions and guides for dating the artifacts. However, it is very difficult to conclusively date artifacts within these cultural periods, and there are numerous examples of unique or transitional styles.

Roughly speaking, then, Paleo-Eskimo artifacts fall into the following general categories:

Old Bering Sea I, also known as the Okvik period (ca. 250 BCE – 100 CE)
Old Bering Sea II (ca. 100-300 CE)
Old Bering Sea III (ca. 300-500 CE)
The Punuk period (ca. 500-1000 CE)
The Western Thule tradition (ca. 1000-1800 CE)

Anthropomorphic Figure , Okvik or Old Bering Sea I, 100 - 400 AD

Okvik is the earliest known phase of Paleo-Eskimo culture, distinguished mainly by carvings of doll-like human representations with a deceptively monumental appearance belying their small scale. The term Okvik comes from one of the earliest known hunting sites on the island, and in Siberian Yupik language means “the place where walrus come ashore.” Okvik artifacts also include harpoon components, various tools, ornaments and animal representations. But the Okvik doll is distinctive, and its presence and curious aspect is often cited as evidence of shamanism, of a personal order. They appear as stoic, totemic figures, with elongated noses and heads, truncated torsos, usually without arms or legs (though not always), and are almost modern-looking to audiences accustomed to Cubist and other European art. Elegantly carved with stone tools, their bodies are typically decorated with surface patterns of straight lines, deeply engraved, sometimes in radiating patterns. These engravings might emphasize skeletal marks or tattoo patterns, but however we read them, they imbue the dolls with a suggestive supernaturalism. One explanation for them, if parallel customs in modern times are considered, is that they were house dolls, protective amulets, or fertility figures. Most dolls are presented as female, with anatomical features suggestive of birthing practices recorded in modern times. Another interpretation is that Okvik dolls were the personal accoutrements of a shaman, and served a ritual purpose, now lost, perhaps related to fertility or to hunting. Curiously, it would appear that many such dolls had suffered some sort of ritual decapitation, since numerous examples have been found with heads cleanly removed. In any case, within the constraints of the highly stylized form of Okvik dolls, there is a great deal of individual variety.

Chain Finial with Zoomorphic Imagery , Old Bering Sea I, 100 - 400 AD

As with all Old Bering Sea, and later periods, art from the Okvik phase is most usually carved from walrus tusk ivory, the most abundant resource material to be found on Saint Lawrence Island. Pacific Walrus and varieties of seal species beach themselves on the island in large numbers. Without trees, wood found on the island arrives solely as driftwood, washed ashore with the eastward Yukon delta as its most likely source, or taken from the closer Siberian coast. Some, quite rare, examples of wood carving survive, and we know that wood and whale rib bones were utilized to construct houses and meat cache structures since the earliest times of inhabitance. Walrus ivory, however, survived well-preserved not only because of its dense material quality, but for the fact that Okvik and later artifacts became buried in ice and permafrost, the permanently frozen soil of arctic lands. Interment in permafrost for centuries, often in conjunction with food waste, animal fats or other organic materials, has imparted the ivory with a rich coloration and patina. Ivory carvings from the Okvik period are often a deep brown, almost black, appearing nothing like the bright white and cream colors of new ivory. We must keep in mind that the carvings we see today would have originally had a very different, bright appearance.

Winged Object, Old Bering Sea II, 400 - 800 AD

Compositionally, Okvik figures have the signature features of an elongated face and nose, on an elegantly rounded head with pointed chin and a lack of ears. The bodies in typical Okvik execution represent the arms reduced to truncated shoulders, and a long tubular torso without articulated legs or feet. While some rare examples of fully-carved legs and arms do exist on Okvik-period figures, these are exceptional and suggest transition towards a later style. As such, the simplified torso of classic Okvik figures may indicate that these dolls originally were dressed in miniature skin parkas and hoods, as in modern doll-making practice.

Harpoon Socket , Old Bering Sea II, 400 - 800 AD

While it is evidenced in examples of the Okvik period, the full flourishing of decorative carving in Old Bering Sea art reaches a stylistic apex during the subsequent periods, commonly classified as OBS II and III. Especially ornamented were the parts of the harpoon, which was certainly the single most important instrument for survival in the region. Used for hunting seal, walrus, and eventually whales, it was constructed of modular components and represented a tremendous technological advancement. The harpoon used for hunting sea mammals in open water consisted of six parts. In the center was a long wood shaft that was inserted into a heavy ivory socket piece and then connected to a smaller ivory foreshaft pin in front. The rear end of the wood shaft held an ivory counterweight, much like the banner stones found in eastern North America, with wide “wings” like a bat or huge butterfly (indeed, this piece is often referred to as a “winged object”). These four components would be lashed tightly together with sealskin cords, caribou rawhide strings, whale baleen, or grass. The foreshaft pin would receive a special toggling harpoon head with a stone blade that was held in place by a very long sinew cord, which the hunter would grasp. Using a wood throwing board—which lent the hunter’s arm greater leverage—inserted into the “tail” of the “winged object,” the hunter would drive the harpoon hard into an animal. Once it struck, the toggling head of the harpoon would pivot sideways, locking underneath the animal’s skin and muscle. This ingenious device greatly increased the efficiency and success rate of hunting large sea mammals and, with few variations, was utilized continuously until well into the twentieth century, even after the introduction of firearms to the region. Examples of toggling harpoon points in iron and steel remain in common use today.

Harpoon Head , Old Bering Sea III, 400 - 800 AD

What is significant about the highly decorated harpoon components is that they share motifs with many other tools used for processing animal skins, meat, and fats, as well as related tools for fishing or otherwise interacting with game of any kind. The motifs range wildly: they include the complex “animal-style” forms shared with Scythian and ancient Chinese art, where the mouths of interlocking animals devour one another. Surface patterns suggestive of wings, mouths, eyes, nostrils, and abstract lines and dots perform a whirlwind of activity across the carvings. There is a great deal of visual movement and linear complexity, and arctic artists of the Old Bering Sea seemingly delighted in the use of visual puns, where an animal form may reveal another animal, or a human face, when turned or inverted. These oft-hidden figures belie the spiritual importance underlying all decorated hunting tools and accoutrements.

In the animistic practices of traditional arctic societies, all living beings, and even inanimate objects – but especially game animals, birds and fish – are conceived as imbued with a spirit, representative of consciousness. The common term for this spirit is inua, a word that implies a human essence in its etymology (inu- being the root term for “person,” i.e., Inuit is the plural, “the people”). The inua consciousness is a foundational principle in the conception of spiritual order, and as such the inua figure is often represented in human form, or as a hybrid animal. The inua is considered the "personal human" of each animal possessing it, allowing hunters to interrelate with them in a continuous cycle. I interpret the iconography of these intricate carvings to follow the cultural belief in spiritual reincarnation, as it is traditionally expressed by the presence of inua figures.

Winged Object, Old Bering Sea II, 400 - 800 AD

As such, carving was of critical importance to village survival. To be a successful hunter in the arctic meant that one had to pay respect to a hunted animal’s inua, its spirit, since it was thought that an animal would return only to those hunters who observed the rituals dictated by their cosmology. Traditional Yuit people (and, we assume, their ancestors of 2000 years ago) believed there to be a fixed number of inua that inhabit the bodies of animals and that when one was killed, the inua reincarnated, usually as another such animal, and remembered the hunter who took its life. Provided that due respect and humility was observed and the appropriate rites performed, it would eventually return to that same hunter to offer itself again. A chief manifestation of proper honoring of the animal was the elaborate decoration of the hunter’s tools, with the most beautiful weapons belonging, by default, to the most successful hunter. In Old Bering Sea times, then, we see the remarkable example of a society where one’s skill as an artist was crucial to the very survival of oneself, family, and community. In the extraordinary universe of the arctic, life without art cannot exist.

To me, this cyclical belief system helps explain the remarkable accomplishment of Old Bering Sea art. In the tiny arctic communities of Sevuqaq, thousands of years ago, skilled carvers used stone tools to create extraordinary beauty, for the purpose of appeasing the spirits of the animals they relied upon for life. We should also remember that the Okvik and early Old Bering Sea period was roughly contemporary to the Roman Empire, and produced its own equivalently important culture and art, while under harsh arctic conditions, mostly in the dark of long northern winters. This realization makes the art of ancient arctic hunters all the more admirable and striking.

Winged Object Fragment, Old Bering Sea III, 400 - 800 AD

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