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Overall view of a carved ivory chain and pendant once used as a harpoon blade case | Donald Ellis Gallery
Close up view of a harpoon blade case with carved animal figures | Donald Ellis Gallery

Harpoon Blade Case

Bering Sea

19th century

marine mammal ivory

height: 28"

Inventory # E3589



Ex. collection Andre Le Veel, Paris, France


Donald Ellis Gallery catalogue, 2010, pgs. 24-25


Fitzhugh, William, Hollowell, Julie, Crowell, Aron. Gifts From the Ancestors: Ancient Ivories of Bering Strait. New Haven: Princeton Art Museum, 2009, pg. 80, fig. 6 

Carved ivory boxes of similar form date back at least to the Old Bering Sea culture on St. Lawrence Island. Though often referred to as “point holders,” used to store ground slate points that were inserted into ivory harpoon heads, similar pieces have also been identified as “fungus ash boxes,” associated with chewing tobacco, or even simply as “trinket boxes,” used to hold all manner of small items. However, the prevalent sea mammal imagery seen here arranged into a complex composition favors the connection to a hunting implement.

Apart from the obvious technical virtuosity of this carving, the artist has produced a remarkable conceptual work. The elegant taper of the chain is a direct reflection of the walrus tusk from which it was carved. At the same time, it connects the whale tail at one end to the doubled walrus form box at the other. Perhaps this distance reflects the hunter's path from “home” to “hunt” and back again.

The box lid is further linked to the head of what appears to be a seal and the tail of a whale, again suggesting the relationship between weapon and prey. Perhaps the harpoon points are contained within the image of the walrus in an effort to connect them with the spirits of the walrus and whale that they will encounter during the hunt.

Though known in simpler form since prehistoric times (see: Fitzhugh 2009, pg. 80, fig. 6), complex carved ivory chain link compositions are among the finest achievements of 19th century Inuit art. The chain introduces the element of motion into an otherwise conceptually stationary work. As the links move and allow the relationship between the various elements to alter, a transformation takes place. With that transformation, an element of “motion over time” is encapsulated within the work. Echoes of this concept are present in the shimmering feathers and rhythmically swaying attachments of Yupik dance masks of the same time period.

This object directly embodies the spiritual beliefs of the hunters who created and used it. It is both a tangible manifestation of the idea of the hunt, and a practical tool to be employed therein.

Bill Wolf, November, 2009

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