By: Jenna Curry
In the ancient world, ivory was an elite material for everyday items. Peoples across the world created small and large works of art by carving bone from the tusks of a walrus or an elephant. “Ivory has always been a very highly valued substance; there’s a universality of its usage from antiquity on,” says Steven Alpert, an expert, dealer and collector of traditional Indonesian art and the arts of the Pacific. The Japanese made netsuke, countless regions created Venus figurines and indigenous peoples used it for everyday necessities—for hunting, preparing clothing and carrying and processing food.
One such region that has relied heavily on ivories is the Bering Strait—the narrow ocean gateway that connects the Arctic and Pacific Oceans and also the point of closest contact between Asia and North America. The Princeton University Art Museum will explore ivory artifacts from ancient peoples of the Bering Strait—including the Okvik, Old Bering Sea, Ipiutak, Punuk and Thule cultures, which span the period from 100 to 1500 A.D—in its exhibition, Gifts From the Ancestors: Ancient Ivories of Bering Strait, running through Jan. 10. Most of the show’s approximately 190 objects are made of walrus tusks and are smaller than the human hand.
Ivory miniatures were used not only for everyday survival tools, but also to serve the purposes of shamanism. “Human figures are a common theme in the earliest phases of the ancient Bering Strait culture,” says Bryan Just, curator and lecturer in the art of the ancient Americas at Princeton. Some of these figurines were used in fertility ceremonies or as toys for children, while others were believed to house guardian spirits that could help hunters capture their prey.
Animal figures were also prominent in Eskimo art; some were used in games for children. One game, which spread across Alaska, Canada and parts of Greenland about 1,000 years ago, employed a group of water birds that were designed to be used as “dice.” To play, one person tosses the birds, and the pieces that land upright are that player’s to keep. After several rounds, the winner is the player with the most pieces.
Just says the ivories from the Bering Strait region usually emerge on the market in one of two ways: Some are excavated from burial sites or given as gifts from family descendants, and others are dug up by the native peoples in their own land and sold into the market. “People there are still hunting and fishing for most of their food. They make money this way,” Just explains. The prices for small ivory figures vary greatly by region, time period, provenance and condition.
As small as they might be, ivory figures have the power to explain how the ancient cultures lived. “For 25,000 years ivory has been used and loved,” says Alpert. “I don’t know what other material has had that elite experience, it supersedes a stone and a normal bone.”