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Decorated Plaque

Old Bering Sea II
St. Lawrence Island, Alaska

ca. 100-300 AD

marine mammal ivory

width: 10 ¼"

Inventory # E3343


acquired by the Diker Collection, now at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY


Excavated July 27, 2005 at Ketngipalak, St. Lawrence Island, AK


Donald Ellis Gallery catalogue, 2006, pgs. 10-11
Indigenous Beauty: Masterworks of American Indian Art from the Diker Collection, David Penney et al., New York, NY, Skira Rizzoli, 2015, pg. 66


La Rime et la Raison: Les Collections Menil (Houston-New York), Paris, Editions de la Reunion des Musees Nationaux,1984, pl. 250

Wardwell, Allen. Ancient Eskimo Ivories of the Bering Strait. New York: Hudson Hills, 1986, pls. 161-162

This monumental ivory is an extremely rare example of an Old Bering Sea II period object incorporating a fully carved human face. More typical of the style are faces only suggested by engraved elements, often abstracted to the point where the eyes are the sole immediately discernable feature. In this example, the central face is boldly carved, and is framed by two pairs of deeply engraved lines forming an elongated diamond shape suggesting the deck of a kayak. This interpretation is reinforced by comparison with two examples of fully sculpted model kayaks from the Old Bering Sea site at Ekven on the Chukchi Peninsula in Siberia, a short distance by sea from St. Lawrence Island, Alaska (see: Arutiunov 1975, pl. 48 #5). These examples display relief carved human faces similarly positioned at the center of the deck. Further direct comparisons can be seen between the engraving styles from the Siberian mainland and St. Lawrence Island during the Old Bering Sea II period.

Although the precise function of this object is unknown, the holes at either end as well as the flat reverse surface suggest attachment or suspension on a backing. It may have functioned as a gorget or breast ornament, however the large size may indicate other possibilities, including attachment to a kayak, box, or any other broad surface.

In this important ivory we find an unusual combination of relief sculpture and complex engraving ranging from representational to abstract. Though lacking written language, Old Bering Sea artists were clearly adept at communicating complex ideas, while demonstrating their mastery of the highest level of aesthetic expression.

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