The Eskimo ulu, or “woman’s knife” is designed for efficiently cutting and butchering meat. A semicircular edged stone blade is slotted into a handle of wood, bone, or ivory that fits into the palm of the hand. This configuration allows for a controlled, powerful cut. The basic form has been consistently in use on St. Lawrence Island from the earliest occupation to the present day. It has become an icon of Eskimo culture.
Though many ulus are simple and primarily utilitarian in form, some have nicely decorated handles. In rare instances, as in this example, the handle is beautifully worked into a complex sculptural form that elevates the common household object to the status of a fine work of art.
The ancient Eskimos recognized the importance of food preparation in their relationship with the animals that were key to their survival, and the same care and respect that was traditionally lavished upon the most sacred of the man’s hunting gear is here accorded to a woman’s ulu. All aspects of the sustenance provided by the animal were revered, from the hunt to the butchering of the meat. For the ancient Eskimo, the seemingly everyday act of preparing the meat of the animal carried as much cause for respect as the hunt in which it was taken.
Figurative ulus are extremely rare, with only a few known examples dating from the Okvik period. A closely related example, though not a Janus head, resides at the Princeton University Art Museum. It is quite similar in form, though somewhat smaller. The engraved design is simpler in composition, lacking the dual diamond forms of this piece. Another example in the De Menil collection incorporates a Janus head into a chain link toggle. Two faces peer out from opposite sides of a large oblong link that is attached to the handle via two other simple chain links.
The protruding Janus head on this ulu is beautifully rendered, and cleverly integrated into the crescent form of the handle. If one reads the crescent shaped handle as the body, one is left with an impression of a flying figure, looking both forward and behind. While we may never know the precise intentions behind the incorporation of this Janus head into the design, its mere presence suggests a level of complexity of thought that is well beyond mere decoration or that of a simple doll. While the knife is held in the hand, one face gazes forward, the other peers back at the user. Both countenances have engraved hair and facial tattoos, but in differing configurations. These differences suggest the possibility of two linked but separate identities, or of two opposing aspects of a single being.
The engraving on the crescent portion of the handle is an example of classic Okvik design. Both sides are engraved with similar compositions, differing only in a few details. In each of them, the main thrust of the composition radiates outward from two central eye-like motifs framed by opposing triangles in an overall dual-diamond design. Just as in the faces of the Janus head, we have two closely related but distinctly differentiated designs.
In examining the overall design concept of this piece, it is clear that the artist has presented a theme of “duality” throughout the work. This is a concept that appears frequently within the realm of the Prehistoric Eskimo, though the reasons for this are not entirely clear to us today. The significance of the Okvik style figure has been a hotly debated topic since the discovery of the first examples some 80 years ago. The appearance of this fully articulated Okvik style Janus head incorporated into an otherwise utilitarian object should be viewed as an important contribution to the understanding of those figures.
Bill Wolf, August 2010