I apologise in advance for all that I have omitted and all that I have included.
The subject-matter was engrossing, and it was difficult to confine it within a narrow area.

–Julia Frankau

indentThis website presents a selection of Eskimo art from across the Arctic
regions, spanning the period from the beginning of the first millennium to
some mid-twentieth century objects, and produced in a variety of media including
ivory, bone or antler and wood. Also covered are works on paper by Natives of
Arctic Canada and Greenland from the early and mid-19th century (which is about
100 years before what is generally considered to be the beginnings of Eskimo
graphic art).  The assumption is that a well-illustrated and documented survey
would be of interest to Arctic anthropologists and archaeologists, Natives of the
areas from which the objects originate, and anyone who may be looking for
information on early Eskimo art.

indentThe material is arranged by geographic area (Alaska and Bering Strait,
Labrador, Greenland), and further subdivided into prehistoric and 19th century
where applicable.  For some entries, single objects or groups of related objects are
merely identified and illustrated with minimal or no comment.  However, in many
cases objects are provided with descriptions, background information and
comparative illustrations, especially when this type of information is not otherwise
available, or when such objects have previously been described in only very general
terms, or incorrectly.  In so far as possible, copies of illustrations and documents
referred to in the text and references are included at the end of the page, and in
some cases extensive quotations have also been provided.  All translations are
mine unless otherwise indicated.

indentInstead of partially duplicating or summarizing previous publications on
Eskimo art, the material presented here is intended to be complementary, for use
in conjunction with the numerous studies of the subject as a whole and of specific
regions (for recent surveys, see Fitzhugh et al., 2009 and Kaalund, 2010).  Nor
have I attempted to describe the decorative elements and patterns that characterize
the various prehistoric cultures (Okvik, Old Bering Sea, Birnik, Punuk, etc.).  Because
these can be better understood in terms of their visual appearance than by verbal
descriptions, I have limited myself to identifying the styles of numerous illustrated
objects, which can thus serve as examples of the various decorative patterns. The
objects chosen for illustration run the gamut from ones of high artistic quality
and significance to more common examples and even objects such as undecorated
toys (all except the first group relegated to the category of “ethnographic junk” by
one collector of exclusively major pieces).  Readers may question whether some
of the more utilitarian objects even qualify as “art” at all.  But just as the collection,
exhibition and publication of modern utilitarian objects, based on the interest and
quality of their design, is considered an appropriate activity for many art museums,
so too one can appreciate similar qualities in the work of Arctic sea mammal hunters
of 1,500 years ago who had many fewer tools and material resources at their disposal.
A full appreciation of the finest examples of this ancient art can therefore not fail to
benefit from familiarity with their entire context.  Moreover, the number of great “artists”
in these small and often widely dispersed communities was obviously limited.  For
example, the total population of Ekven in Chukotka (Russia), one of the largest
centers of ancient Bering Sea culture, has been estimated at only about 200.  Its
occupancy from around 500 to 1500 A.D. covered a probably uninterrupted
span from Okvik and Old Bering Sea to Thule culture periods, but only a fraction
of its inhabitants were skilled ivory carvers.  It is therefore surprising that so many
extraordinary prehistoric objects have been preserved, especially since many
former settlements have partially or entirely eroded into the sea (Crowell, 1985;
Bronshtein, 2009).

indentRather than using specific objects to illustrate general themes of Eskimo
life and culture, which has already been done in a number of books and exhibition
catalogs, the aim here is to place the emphasis on the objects themselves. Their
aesthetic qualities speak for themselves and require a minimum of description
and explanation (assuming that such information is even available), but in most
cases their design is closely related to function and the limited variety of materials
available to make them.  In the literature that has appeared up to now relatively
little attention has been paid to these aspects of Eskimo art, and many objects
remain in the category of interesting, and often beautiful, but mysterious creations
that seemingly arose exclusively from the individual artist’s imagination. There
are in fact many objects about whose iconography and function we can still only
guess, but excavations over the past half-century have clarified many of these
apparent mysteries. Arutiunov and Sergeev have also pointed out that the elaborate
decoration of utilitarian objects could function as a type of artifact “template” that
aided in memorizing the optimal construction of the object, and thus provided
continuity of tradition in making hunting equipment and household tools.

indentBy far the largest portion of the material presented here concerns prehistoric
ivory carvings from the Bering Strait that were made about 1,000 to 2,000 years ago,
a period that many consider to be the ”golden age” of Eskimo art.  Yet one of the enduring
mysteries of Arctic archaeology is the question of just what type of culture led up to this
artistic efflorescence, a process about which we know essentially nothing although it
must have taken place over a considerable period of time.

indentIt has frequently been noted that these carvings were not made as sculptures
with a front, back, top or bottom, to be viewed from a single angle, but rather to be held
in the hand, turned over, and often experienced tactilely as much as visually.  I have
therefore attempted in so far as possible to convey the presumed intentions of their
creators by showing multiple views of many objects, which is not the usual practice
in publications on Eskimo art.  Some of the illustrations show not artistic details but
rather more mundane functional features, knowledge of which is necessary for any
understanding of their mode of use.  This point is particularly significant because
although the careful carving and elaborate decoration seen on many objects was
an important aspect in relation to Eskimo myth, ritual and world view, however fine
the objects may be artistically in most cases they were ultimately made for use.  I have
also not attempted to be either comprehensive or representative, but merely to present
examples that were selected on the basis of artistic quality, ethnographic interest,
authenticity and condition.  I hope that this approach will enhance the understanding
and appreciation of an ancient but relatively unfamiliar art tradition, and allow the
enjoyment of many singular works produced by a long line of highly imaginative,
skilled and resourceful inhabitants of one of the least hospitable and forgiving
environments on earth.

Acknowledgements.  I am very grateful to many people and institutions for
providing information.  Although too numerous to mention individually here, they are
often identified in the text, or will recognize their contribution on reading the pertinent
entry.  I would, however, like to call particular attention to the many invaluable
contributions of Sergey Arutiunov and Mikhail Bronshtein, without whose kind
assistance many of the entries concerning Bering Strait objects could not have
appeared in their present form.  I am, nevertheless, solely responsible for any errors
or omissions that may occur.


R. Margolis



Bronshtein, M. (2009): in Gifts from the Ancestors: Ancient Ivories of Bering Strait  (Fitzhugh, W.W., Hollowell, J. and Crowell, A., Eds.), Yale University Press, p. 107.

Crowell, A.L. (1985):  Archaeological Survey and Site Condition Assessment of Saint Lawrence Island, Alaska.  Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, and Sivuqaq, Inc., Gambell, Alaska

Fitzhugh, W.W., Hollowell, J. and Crowell, A., Eds. (2009):  Gifts from the Ancestors: Ancient Ivories of Bering Strait, Yale University Press, New Haven and London.

Frankau, J. (1900):  Eighteenth Century Colour Prints – An Essay on Certain Stipple Engravers & their Work in Colour, Macmillan, London/New York, xii

Kaalund, B. (2010): The Art of Greenland, 3rd edition, Gyldendal, Copenhagen