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August 12, 2010

Exploring the Art of Eskimo Cultures

Out of all the indigenous cultures of the Americas the Eskimos are perhaps least explored; they can't live up to the grandness of the neighboring empires of the south, such as the Aztecs and the Mayas. It's because of this that I first took interest in this group of people. Growing up in Peru I learned about Pre-Colombian cultures and the Inca Empire at a early age, and am very familiarized with their art. I wanted to know how it differentiates from the other side of the world, so I took the task of exploring these fascinating nations. Sadly not a lot of art/archeological material is known to exist from these past civilizations, but what we do have is worth surveying.



The journey begins with the Arctic Small Tool Tradition around 2000 BC. This culture represents the first occupation of arctic North America by Paleoeskimos. It gets its name because their tools and weapons had remarkably small cutting edges chipped from stone. Later on, the Arctic Small Tool tradition branches off into two cultural variants, including the Pre-Dorset Culture and other independent traditions, such as Independent I & II cultures that flourished in 2400 BC in northern and northeastern Greenland and Saqqaq culture (2500 - 800 BC), which inhabited the southern coasts of the big island. Not much is left from them.



Left: Tools & Weapons - Independence I culture (2400-1800 BC)
Right: Ivory Mask - Independence II ( 700-80BC)


Pre-Dorset & Dorset 
The Pre-Dorset culture flourished in 2500 BC. from the Arctic Small Tool Tradition in northwestern Canada and western Greenland. Most of the objects remaining from this culture, just like from most Paleo-Skimo cultures, are small tools. About 500 BC The Pre-Dorset evolved into the Dorset Nation. This is when art started showing up more and more, with materials such as ivory, bone, antler & stone, and mainly focusing on figurative art (sculptures, masks, etc).


Ivory mask - Dorset Culture (500 BC - AD 1500)
One of the earliest pieces of Dorset art found
Right: Ivory mask - Dorset Culture (500 BC - AD 1500)
Recently Found


The Dorset's shamanic beliefs can be represented on their art, as the masks were probably used in rituals. They also seem to have a fascination with wildlife, and its relation with humanity and spirituality.


Ivory Human figures - Dorset Culture (500 BC - AD 1500)
Notice the anthropomorphism of the left figure, a cross between human and animal.


Left: Shamanic teeth - Dorset culture - Dorset Culture (500 BC - AD 1500)
Right: Ox bison - Dorset Culture (500 BC - AD 1500)
More Dorset art


The Dorset & the Europeans
Forget about Christopher Columbus, it is no myth that the old Eskimo nation was in contact with Europeans, the Norse people to be exact. When the Dorset dominated most of northeastern Canada between 900 -1100 AD, vikings inhabited small parts of southern Greenland, but most settled in Iceland. Some scholars argue that the interaction between Vikings and Eskimos can be represented in some Dorset masks, which seem to have European features, such as longer noses, and the fact some appear to have headgear, typical of vikings.


Wooden & antler carvings - Dorset Culture (500 BC - AD 1500) believed to be European faces.


Alaskan cultures
At the time that the Dorset emerged from the Pre-Dorset Culture, new civilizations were popping up at the other side of Canada. About 500 BC the Iputaks appeared in northwestern Alaska.


Burial Mask - Iputak Culture (500 BC -1000 AD)



Ivory Walrus- Iputak Culture (500 BC -1000 AD)



Ipiutak art employs similar types of line art together with a wide repertoire of semi-human beastly faces, human forms, and animal representations with skeletal and joint-markings.


The Old Bering Sea People (OBS) was another group that emerged near Alaska, around the Bering Straits of North America and Russia. This group is made up of 3 civilizations, the Okvic/OBS I, II & III.


Ivory Carvings - Old Bering Sea I culture. (100-400 AD)


Henry B. Collins was the first archaeologist to recognize OBS I, or Okvik, as a distinctly separate artistic style. Okvik human sculptural style focuses attention on the head and its facial details, bodies often being rendered without surface elaboration.
In the area of weaponry, surfaces were elaborated with delicately incised images. Animal spirits, used to attract game to the hunter, and spirit helpers that added strength to the weapon itself were among the depictions, such as in the harpoon counterweight seen below. These tools have become art icons of these cultures.


Harpoon Counterweight - Old Bering Sea I culture. (100-400 AD)


In the Old Bering Sea II Culture, the earlier motifs develop into more complex forms in which the lines are slightly curved, and circles and ovals rise from the surface as bosses (a raised, rounded area). Lines appear in spurred, toothed, and dashed variations, and bird and animal forms are prominent. Human figures fall out of use. Objects exhibit more elaborate surface engraving and are more fully shaped in the round than in OBS I.



Harpoon Counterweight - Old Bering Sea II culture. (400-800 BC)



Ivory Stylus - Old Bering Sea II culture. (400-800 BC)


Harpoon Counterweight - Old Bering Sea II culture. (400-800 BC)


Old Bering Sea III carries the curvilinear style to its fullest expression with graceful, looping form-lines, sparingly used to define large, open fields across the ivory surface. Zoomorphic (animal or animal-like) imagery continues to be prominent, and mounded bosses are more common and carved in greater relief.


Woman's knife-Old Bering Sea II culture. (400-800 BC)


Out of the Old Bering Sea people, around 800 AD emerges the Punuk Culture. They represent a sharp stylistic break. Punuk artists emphasized deeply cut single and double lines, boldly toothed spur-and-ladder designs, and drilled holes. Tools like metal burins and compasses for creating perfect circle and dot features came into use. Like Old Bering Sea art, Punuk works evolved through several stylistic phases, tending toward design simplification until surface ornamentation disappeared completely. Harpoon counterweights also become more simplified until they disappear completely. Human figures return to the repertoire of ivory carvings


Ivory Carvings - Punuk Culture (800-1200 AD)
Harpoon Counterweight - Punuk Culture (800-1200 AD)


The Bear Imagery
Out of all the animals and motifs seen in Eskimo artwork, the polar bear has always triumphed as the subject that unifies all Eskimo cultures.



Left: Flying Ivory Bear - Dorset Culture (500 BC - AD 1500)
Right: Bear Head - Old Bering Sea II culture (400-800 BC)


Left: Ivory Bear - Iputak Culture (500 BC -1000 AD)
Right: Ivory Bear - Old Bering Sea I culture. (100-400 AD)

Bear Head - Punuk Culture (800-1200 AD)

The Thule and the Modern Inuit
Between 1100 & 1500 AD. The Dorset Culture became extinct (or diluted) due to emigration of the Thule Culture. These settlers came out of Alaska around 1000 AD, and spread rapidly across the Tundra. The Thule are the ancestors of the modern Inuit. All of the Inuit utensils, tools and weapons were made by hand from natural materials: stone, bone, ivory, antler, and animal hides. Nomadic people could take very little else with them besides the tools of their daily living; non-utilitarian objects were also carved in miniature so that they could be carried around or worn, such as delicate earrings, mask , amulets, fetish figures, and intricate combs and figures which were used to tell legends and objectify the mythology and Oral History.

Snow Knife - Thule Culture (Circa 1000 AD)

Ivory Combs - Thule Culture (Circa 1000 AD)

Ivory ox - Thule Culture (Circa 1000 AD)

The Historic Period & The Modern Era
The 1770`s mark the beginning of the historic period in Inuit art. The first period influenced by Europeans who started to settle and trade with the local Inuit until the 1940`s. They were mostly missionaries but also explorers, whalers, traders and others. The art production would then change from decorative tools or shamanic amulets to a trade commodity. The Inuit, being still nomadic people, the objects they produced were mostly miniature or small scale ivory pieces representing themselves or animals but sometimes larger functional objects such as cribbage boards. The graphic productions were usually etchings on ivory representing Inuit life in a two-dimensional way similar as the ones made by their predecessors.
Of course Inuit did have a concept art in the European sense  but this period marks the transition from purely Inuit-centered- production to what will become production meant not for trade but for commerce. Cultures produced art for themselves and now the art was produced for others and its main purpose was commerce with the outside world. The concept of art production evolved rapidly in the historic period and this would lay the pavement for the contemporary art period.


As the Inuit settled into communities in the late 1940s, their carvings became larger, and the requests to produce them as artwork increased. The Government of Canada recognized the potential economic benefit of commercial art to the isolated Arctic communities, and encouraged the development and promotion of Inuit sculpture, starting the Contemporary Period of Skimo & Inuit Art.



Modern Inuit Art



Works Cited
· http://www.miamuseum.ca
· http://artmuseum.princeton.edu/gifts/ivories/stylistic/
· http://www.civilization.ca/cmc/exhibitions/archeo/helluland/str0501e.shtml
· http://www.metmuseum.org
· http://www.hurstgallery.com/exhibit/past/artic/obs1.html
· http://www.ablogabouthistory.com/tag/dorset/
· http://www.wimssite.nl/index.php?pagina=hobby&onderwerp=120&stem=1
· http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/Exhibitions/Nunavik/e-nunavik-0201.html
· http://archaeology.about.com/od/skthroughsp/qt/skraelings.htm
· http://www.inuitartzone.com/en/about/about_ia_history.html

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