Lot 7
  • 7

Harpoon Counterweight (Winged Object)

20,000 - 30,000 USD
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  • Walrus bone (Odobenus rosmarus)
  • Length: 6 3/8 in (16.2 cm)


Excavated on Little Diomede Island, Alaska, in 1978
Jeffrey R. Myers and Martin Ellman, New York
Howard and Saretta Barnet, New York, acquired from the above on January 19, 1980


Anchorage Museum of History and Art, Anchorage, Ancient Eskimo Ivories of the Bering Strait, July 13 - September 7, 1986, and travelling: the Lowie Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley,  October 18, 1986 - January 9, 1987; Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, January 25 - March 22, 1987; the American Museum of Natural History, New York, October 2, 1987 - January 3, 1988


Allen Wardwell, Ancient Eskimo Ivories of the Bering Strait, New York, 1986, p. 77, cat. no. 85


Good condition for an object of this type and great age. Marks nicks scratches, abrasions, and age cracks consistent with age, use, and burial. Some wear, flaking, and cracks through top patinated layer in places. Small losses. Fine dark aged surface, glossy in places, from use, and burial in permafrost. One small reattached chip.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

Winged objects are perhaps the most astonishing of the ancient ivories of the Bering Strait. For Henry B. Collins, author of the first classic study on ancient Old Bering Sea objects, Prehistoric Art of the Alaskan Eskimo, winged objects were the masterpieces of Eskimo art.1 These enigmatic objects were for a long time thought to perhaps represent emblems or crests from the tops of wooden ceremonial staffs; Collins wrote that they "could hardly have had a practical use; it was no doubt employed in some ceremony [...] or perhaps as a charm used by the boat captain to bring success in the hunt."2 Their purpose was clarified when excavations at Ekven and Uelen on the Chukotka Peninsula in far eastern Russia revealed winged objects fastened to the ends of wooden shafts tipped with socket pieces and heads of carved ivory.3 Too short to have been used as spears, it was evident that these objects were harpoons, and that the heavy weight of the ivory harpoon head and socket piece at the front must have needed to be balanced by a counterweight at the lighter end of the shaft.4 The origin of this remarkable solution is unclear, although Arutiunov argues that the first counterweights were made of the atlas vertebra (which connects the spine to the base of the skull) of a seal or walrus. This argument is particularly compelling as in cross section many winged objects, including the present example, closely resemble the form of an atlas vertebra. Within the cosmological framework which underpinned the significance of all ancient Bering Strait ivories it is interesting to note that the atlas vertebra was "thought by historic Eskimos of Chukotka to be the seat of the animal's soul."5

Recent scholarship shows that Collins early notion of the objects serving as a means of bringing 'success in the hunt' contained some truth, for whilst these objects existed in a physical and practical world as counterweights, they also occupied a cultural and spiritual one as "winged objects". As Fitzhugh notes, "the hierarchical nature of the harpoon spirit cluster – from the bird-figured harpoon head, to beast-figured socket, to god-like counterweight – is not casual or accidental […] winged objects represent master spirits and their animal and human subjects. No doubt these beings had specific identities known to [Old Bering Sea] people through mythology and folklore […]".6 As with lots 8 and 9, the presence of these predatory creatures could augment the power of the object. The Barnet winged object contains a clear reference to the beastly, quasi-human face that may represent a spirit-controller of animals similar to the tuunraq spirit-helper of Yup'ik shamans. The arc at the base of the dorsal side suggests the mouth of one of these spirit-controllers, its teeth bared. It is positioned at the center of the composition, flanked on either side by the complex, notched wing outline which is characteristic of Old Bering Sea II winged objects. The composition of the intricate curvilinear designs and pierced circles within the outline of the wings is balanced and seemingly symmetrical, but with that degree of variation which, as Arutiunov notes, is characteristic of the "natural symmetry" of a flower or other object from the natural world.7 On the ventral side there is an almost spectral apparition, its "body" emerging in relief from the center of the composition, its wings spread. The characteristic nucleated circle designs give this creature the appearance of eyes and a mouth which seems to emit a silent howl.

1 Henry B. Collins, Prehistoric Art of the Alaskan Eskimo, Washington, D.C., 1929, p. 9
3 Amongst the winged objects excavated at Ekven is an example now in the State Museum of Oriental Art in Moscow (inv. no. 764) which bears close comparison with the Barnet winged object; a drawing of it appears in Fitzhugh, Hollowell, and Crowell, eds., Gifts from the Ancestors: Ancient Ivories of Bering Strait, 2009, p. 146, fig. 2
4 Two schools of thought exist regarding the secondary purpose which these objects may have served, with Sergei Arutiunov and Mikhail Bronshtein proposing that the objects also provided aerodynamic stability as the harpoon flew through the air; Kirill Dneprovsky amongst others argue against this, believing that the object's weight was intended to improve the penetration of the harpoon head.
5 Arutiunov in ibid., p. 56, fig. 8
6 Fitzhugh in ibid., p. 183
7 Arutiunov in ibid., p. 134