Three Carvings from Cook Inlet, Alaska

By: F. de L.

Originally Published in 1933

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THREE interesting representations of human heads were secured in 1932 from a site in Kachemak Bay, Cook Inlet, Alaska, of the same prehistoric Eskimo culture that produced the lamp with the human figure in the bowl, described in the last number of the Bulletin. The Eskimo of southwestern Alaska, both of the remote past and of recent days, carved small ivory figures, some exhibiting such life-like features and expressions that we might almost call them examples of portraiture. Such a realistic ivory head from Kachemak Bay was illustrated in the Bulletin for December, 1931. These ivory figures may have been dolls-for dolls are a common and characteristic element of Eskimo culture-some are said to have been used as amulets by childless women to secure offspring, and others again were used by the shamans as puppets in their magical performances.

Three carved ivory figurines with crude faces
Plate XII –Ivory Figurines from Kachemak Bay, Cook Inlet, Alaska

The two heads here figured [Plate XII] are all older than the lamp with the human figure and the ivory head found in 1931, and they are all more conventionalized than the latter specimen. The first of these heads has a face on both sides, each of which is illustrated. Between the faces is a deep slit (perhaps to hold the blade of a ceremonial knife), and there are holes drilled through the head and through the neck, which is broken off. The difference in the expressions of the two faces is striking, the first being mild, the second rather forbidding. There were probably inserts in the eye-sockets of the latter, and in the open mouth we can see the tongue or the inside flange of an enormous labret (lip-plug). On both faces the eyebrows are indicated by fine lines, on the second the mustache is shown in the same way. The lines drawn from the nose down across the cheeks of both faces probably represent painting or tattooing. This specimen is from a stage intermediate between the Second and the Third of the Kachemak Bay culture. It was from the Third Period that the ivory head of 1931 and the decorated lamp were derived.

The second carving (on the right, Plate XII) is a crude little doll, cut from a porpoise or beluga tooth. The eyes, eyebrows, nose, and mouth are indicated simply by dots and lines. Below the mouth is a vertical line with three pairs of short spurs slanting down from it. This suggests the pattern of the tattooing observed by the early explorers in this region on the chins of the Eskimo women. The style of this doll is quite unusual. It is characteristic, however, of an ancient Eskimo site at Port Möller, on the Alaska Peninsula, which has a culture similar in many ways to that of Kachemak Bay. This specimen dates from the beginning of the Second Period.

From the very bottom of an enormous shell-heap, in a layer dating from the First Period, was obtained a stone head. It is simply half of an egg-shaped pebble, on the rounded side of which a face has been pecked out. Only the portion below the brows and about the nose has been removed, but the artist has been able to suggest the slanting eyes, long nose, and high cheek-hones of the Eskimo of this region. Carving of this sort is foreign to Eskimo art. The finding of this specimen shows that even in the First Period of the Kachemak Bay culture there were already present those Northwest Coast Indian influences which were destined eventually to evolve the decorated lamps with human figure of the Third Period.

F. de L.

Cite This Article

L., F. de. "Three Carvings from Cook Inlet, Alaska." Museum Bulletin IV, no. 2 (February, 1933): 56-58. Accessed July 15, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/bulletin/1092/


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