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

Snow Goggles

Old Bering Sea or Inupiaq (?)
Northwestern Alaska

ca. 300 - 600 AD

wood, marine mammal ivory

width: 4 ¾"

Inventory # E3331


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


Donald Ellis Gallery catalogue, 2006, pgs. 14-15
Indigenous Beauty: Masterworks of American Indian Art from the Diker Collection, David Penney et al., New York, NY, Skira Rizzoli, 2015, pg. 64

The early Inuit cultures around the Bering Strait produced snow goggles, either of ivory or wood, as a defense against a painful and often serious condition commonly known as snow blindness, brought about by the harsh glare of the low-lying sun on sea and snow. The narrow openings would shade the wearer's eyes from overexposure to the rays of the sun, as well as affording some protection from wind, sleet or snow.

Ivory goggles were often decorated with surface engraving in the prevailing style of the time, and thus are attributable to their cultural origin. Of the relatively few surviving examples of wooden goggles from early Inuit cultures, most are devoid of any substantial decoration, and thus datable only when recovered in a controlled archaeological context. In this case, however, we have a unique example of carefully sculpted wooden goggles that have been elaborately inlaid with a pattern of small ivory plaques. Without any similar body of work to relate them to, definitive attribution is impossible. However, the fairly elaborate composition provides enough information to substantially narrow the field of possible origins.

An examination of snow goggle design elements used by various prehistoric Inuit cultures reveals a number of recurring design motifs, many of which are fairly consistent and common to specific, relatively short time periods. In a majority of Old Bering Sea designs, and occasionally in Ipiutak examples, the engraved composition includes a pair of circular “eye” design elements positioned below the actual functioning eye openings. The circular ivory inlays in the present example provide the same imagery, though rendered in a completely different form. The line work of engraving is replaced by a series of small, individually defined areas, in the form of ivory inlays. These elements interact with each other to present an overall design impression similar to that of the more familiar engraving.

In a typical Ipiutak or Old Bering Sea engraved composition, animal-like “nostrils” are often incorporated on or about the bridge of the nose, in a form similar to the two looping inlays on this example. Additionally, this artist has placed a series of repeating rectangles along the top of these goggles, where one might expect to see a series of repeating linear graphic elements.

These goggles are directly related in both concept and composition to the Old Bering Sea and Ipiutak design standard, and on this basis it is possible to make a tentative attribution. Wooden artifacts are by nature more ephemeral than the more durable bone and ivory pieces which survive in far greater numbers, so it is indeed fortunate that we are afforded this rare, or possibly unique glimpse at what may be an otherwise lost artistic tradition.

Bill Wolf

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