Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Gifts from the Ancestors Offers a Rare Glimpse of Ancient Arctic Life

By Brianne Harrison

Princeton University has, among other things, an excellent art museum that is (rightly) celebrated for its extensive collection and illuminating exhibitions. With their most current exhibition, Gifts from the Ancestors: Ancient Ivories of Bering Strait, they may have outdone themselves. The massive collection of hundreds of ancient ivories carved from walrus tusks—mostly dating from 100 AD to about 1200 AD, are not only exquisite works of art; like most anthropological finds, they provide information about how ancient people of the Bering Strait region lived, hunted, amused themselves, and died, and what was important to them. In addition to showing the beautiful pieces, the exhibition examines their uses and the information they provide to give a more complete picture of life in an ancient subsistence society in the frozen north.

One might think that people who had to struggle day to day just to bring home enough food to feed their families wouldn’t be too concerned with making their everyday objects beautiful. This exhibition definitely proves that assumption wrong. The most commonplace objects—handles, harpoon heads and shafts, needle cases, combs, spoons, and gut scrapers—are intricately carved in such a way that you see something different depending on what angle you view the object from. One harpoon counterweight had the face of a predator carved into it when viewed one way, but if you turned it upside down, you could see a tiny human face carved in as well. Viewing many of these objects is like pulling out an ancient Magic Eye book.

And why should these ancient hunters have taken such care with commonplace items? The exhibition posits that including images of the prey in their weaponry may have been the hunters’ way of bringing luck to the hunt and honoring the animal that would provide sustenance for themselves and their families. But other objects’ meanings are more opaque than that—there are wonderful tiny gaming pieces in the shape of birds, as well as human figures, and small carvings of various animals that have no obvious use. Were these toys? Objects of worship? It’s difficult to say, but they’re still enjoyable to look at.

Gifts from the Ancestors was a long time coming—many of the pieces were gifted to the museum many years ago by Lloyd E. Cotsen, a member of the class of 1950. It took nearly a decade to bring the exhibition to light, but I think most visitors will agree it was well worth the wait.

Bonus: The Arts Council of Princeton, which is a short, pleasant walk from the University Art Museum, is presenting Dry Ice: Alaska Native Artists and the Landscape as a companion exhibition/counterpoint to Gifts from the Ancestors. Dry Ice will be on view through November 21.
102 Witherspoon St., Princeton, artscouncilofprinceton.org

Gifts from the Ancestors runs through January 10, 2010. For more information, visit princetonartmuseum.org.

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