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Vol. LXIII, No. 40
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
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Two Millennia and Two Continents Brought to Life by Ancient Ivories

Dilshanie Perera

Showcasing artwork from both the Russian and American sides of the Bering Strait, the new exhibition at the Princeton University Art Museum, “Gifts From the Ancestors: Ancient Ivories of Bering Strait,” offers a unique view of the ancient art and culture of Native populations from that region.

The objects span two millennia of carving, and are made from walrus ivory, with the exception of two pieces carved in antler and mastodon tusk, respectively.

“An exhibit of this kind demands a close look,” said Museum Director James Steward during a media tour of the show.

Curator and Lecturer in the Art of the Ancient Americas Bryan Just noted that he wanted to “bring to the fore the objects themselves,” and display the “varied social life” of the pieces while “gradually introducing ways to contextualize them.”

As one enters the exhibition, many of the ancient ivories are presented against a blank background, with the archeological conditions under which they were found, as well as various uses for the objects made apparent as one traverses the exhibit space.

Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology from DePauw University Julie Hollowell, who is also a curator of “Gifts from the Ancestors,” observed that the carvings were “so artistically and technically made, but were functional objects too,” with a number of them playing a role in hunting and sewing.

Of the 200 works on view, many hail from the Lloyd E. Cotsen, Class of 1950, Eskimo Bone and Ivory Carving Collection, a 1997 gift to the Art Museum. Other ancient pieces are on loan from various public and private collections. Also in the exhibit are works by contemporary artists Susie Silook from St. Lawrence Island, and Sergei Tegryl’kut and Mikhail Leyviteu from Chukotka, Russia.

Mr. Just explained that the intricately carved “winged objects” were used as the counterweight attached to the end of a harpoon, pointing out the polymorphic imagery, which makes the piece resemble a polar bear head from one direction or a tusked walrus from another, for example.

In one area of the show, various styles of carving (including Old Bering Sea I and II, Punuk, and Ipiutak) are juxtaposed for the viewer to identify the unique markings and to get a sense of the different traditions over time and between regions. Tools used to make the carvings, including an axe blade and a bow drill with a squirrel-tooth bit, are displayed alongside.

The art market’s interest in ancient Alaskan and Russian ivory carvings was piqued in the 1930s and 40s, when they were beginning to be excavated, but the only other solo exhibition of such objects was in 1986, reported Ms. Hollowell.

Other sections of the exhibition show how the winged objects were used, and depict how an archeological excavation can shed light on the previous use of materials, respectively.

“Gifts from the Ancestors” will be on view at the Princeton University Art Museum through January 10, 2010. For a list of related public events, visit or call (609) 258-3788.

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