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Close-up frontal view of an ancient viral head carving showing a dark patina | Donald Ellis Gallery


Bering Sea, Alaska

200 BC – 100 AD

marine mammal ivory

height: 2 ¾"

Inventory # E3887



The Allen and Sally Wardwell Collection, New York, NY


Musees Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, Brussels, Tresors du Nouveau Monde, September 15 to December 27, 1992


Ivoires Esquimaux Prehistoriques de la Mer de Bering. Primitifs, 1991, vol. 1, pg. 43, pl. 3
Tresors du Nouveau Monde, Brussels, Musees Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, 1992, pgs. 98-99, pl. 3
Donald Ellis Gallery catalogue, 2012, ppl. 20

The Okvik period (200 BC - 100 AD) is generally considered the earliest of the Old Bering Sea cultural phases. Archaeological excavations suggest that the people settling along the coastal regions of St. Lawrence Island and the Punuk Islands in the Bering and Chukchi Seas largely subsisted on plentiful fish and sea mammals. Walrus tusks also provided a material prized for its density and beauty. The majority were fashioned into carefully engraved hunting implements; harpoon heads, sockets and counterweights. Among the most enigmatic and artistically accomplished works from the period are finely rendered torsos and human heads. Small in scale, the present carving beautifully encapsulates the stylised human form typical of the Okvik period. The elongated oval head is symmetrically carved, exhibiting deeply incised eye-sockets framed by relatively naturalistic eyebrows, a long slender nose and a slightly opened mouth. The head is seemingly broken at the neck, a feature that repeatedly occurs among Okvik human representations, although the context of this practice remains unclear. The carving is complemented with precise fine line engraving running from the cheeks to the ears and down the chin. These marks likely relate to the facial tattooing of young women as was practiced by Inuit peoples well into the 20th century and is currently experiencing a revival.

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