An Alaskan Stone Lamp

By: F. de L.

Originally Published in 1932

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THE Museum has been fortunate in acquiring a second example of the same type as the remarkable stone lamp, decorated with a human figure in the bowl, which is now on exhibit in the Eskimo Hall. When the first lamp was secured by the Museum, it was an almost unique specimen-at that time only four others of this type had ever been found-and though the finding places of these were known, namely the lower Yukon and the region about Cook Inlet, Alaska, the culture of the artists who made these lamps remained a deep mystery. Dr. J. Alden Mason, Curator of the Museum’s American Section, argued that though this type of decoration in stone was foreign to Eskimo technique, the lamps must have been made by Eskimo, since their oval shapes and proportions were exactly like those of the undecorated lamps of the southernmost Alaska Eskimo. The provenience of these decorated lamps, in territory now occupied by the inartistic Athabaskan Indians, proves that in former times the Eskimo lived along the shores of Cook Inlet and farther up the Yukon River than they do now.

Shallow stone lamp bowl with a seated figure in the middle
Plate XI — Eskimo Stone Lamp, Probably for Ceremonial Use, From Cook Inlet, Alaska
Museum Object Number: 32-8-120

It was with the hope of solving the problem of these lamps, as well as to explore the hitherto untouched ancient village sites of Cook Inlet, that the Museum sent an expedition to this region under Miss Frederica de Laguna during the summers of 1930, 1931 and 1932. At the close of the last season’s work on the south- eastern shores of Cook Inlet, good fortune led to the finding of a small lamp with a human figure in the bowl [Plate XI], the only one of the six lamps of this type to be found in situ by a scientific expedition. The location of this specimen in a layer dating from the middle of the last of three periods of the prehistoric Eskimo culture of Cook Inlet thus supports Dr. Mason’s theory that the lamps were made by Eskimo. The prehistoric Cook Inlet culture, while basically Eskimo, was much modified by the sub-arctic environment and by contact with the Indians. Apparently the human figure in the bowl has been evolved from the plain, undecorated knobs found in ancient Eskimo lamps from Greenland to Siberia. Many points of similarity between the third stage of the Cook Inlet Eskimo culture with the archaeological cultures of southern British Columbia makes plausible the theory that it is in the grotesquely carved stone bowls and mortars of this region that we must seek the art style which has prompted the decoration of these Eskimo lamps. This theory is also supported by the finding of the new lamp in a deposit dating from the period in which this British Columbia influence was at its strongest.

This lamp, together with a small, plain specimen, had been cached in a house which was then in ruins. There seems to be no doubt that the decorated specimen was intended for ceremonial use. The man is sitting in the bowl, as if submerged to the waist in the oil with which it was filled when in use, his hands are stretched towards the front of the lamp where the wick burned, his eyes are closed, his face upturned as if in prayer. The carving of the features is very fine, though the style is somewhat grotesque. The lamp, however, lacks the decorations on the side and rim, found on the larger lamp, previously acquired by the Museum. This last portrays the man facing the wick. On the top of his head is a cap-like object, which is probably his hair, ‘cut to a tuft in the middle,’ as described by the first explorers among the Eskimo of southwestern Alaska. It is thus a contemporary which the Eskimo artist has portrayed.

F. de L.

Cite This Article

L., F. de. "An Alaskan Stone Lamp." Museum Bulletin IV, no. 1 (December, 1932): 21-25. Accessed July 19, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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