259 • Six Exceptional Eskimo Marine Ivory Figurines

On kind loan from a private collection


16th–17th century
Size: 9 cm long

The sea otter is a most unusual creature; the more one learns about them, the more the great skill of the creator of this masterpiece is revealed. For example, the fifth digit on each of its hind feet is longer than the other four. They spend a lot of time lying on their back, but when hungry they crush an abalone on their stomach with a stone. Dislodging an abalone is no mean feat, since it clings to a rock with a force equal to 4,000 times its body weight. The otters use stones to get them, and are among the few mammals to use tools. When Bob Dylan was asked during his first interview with Playboy magazine why he grew his hair so long, he answered that we all have a choice: of having our hair growing inside our heads, or outside. He preferred the latter, because it promoted clearer thinking. The sea otter would agree, unreservedly. It has the thickest fur of any creature on Earth, an outer layer so dense that the lower layer remains dry while it spends its life in the coldest water. Not needing blubber for insulation, it probably mocks fat seals and porpoises. The quality of its fur nearly caused its extinction, but happily in 1911 their slaughter was outlawed, and now their colonies thrive.


Thule Culture, North Alaska, 1000–1600
Size: 7 cm long

The seal has been killed by a harpoon in the head as it emerged at its breathing hole in the ice. Lifted onto the ice, it was then attached by thongs to its killer’s two skis, which are shown along its back, to make dragging it back to the igloo an easier job. The neck is pierced for suspension.


South Alaska, 17th–18th century
Size: 13 cm long

The whale’s name derives from Old Norse, the word ‘nar’ meaning ‘corpse’, because the narwhal’s grey colour and summertime habit of lying still near the surface of the sea, made it look like a drowned sailor. But its great claim to fame is the long helical tusk, which is an elongated upper-left canine. This, when old and patinated, is an object of mysterious beauty. I have written at length about such tusks for the first entry of this catalogue, although why they should be so useful for a whale is still not understood. They are picky eaters: flatfish in summer, Arctic cod and Greenland halibut during the winter. And they communicate among themselves by clicks, whistles and bumps. They are rarely represented by Eskimo ivory carvers.


Alaska, 16th–17th century
Size: 9.5 cm long

Talismans depicting transformations were believed to be especially powerful, and go to the very heart of shamanic tradition. This example is particularly extraordinary. At the very end a seal holds on precariously, while a little further up his next manifestation has grown two arms and a hybrid head. Then, suddenly, in the middle he emerges in human form. This human form then turns 90 degrees and lying on his back bends over the end, where, amazingly, he becomes the head of a polar bear. The hole underneath was for a leather strap.


Alaska, 17th–18th century
Size: 10.5 cm long

For millennia the polar bear has been important in the material and spiritual cultures of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic. A legend among the Eskimos of Alaska tells how the bears are humans in their own homes and put on bear hides when going outside. It is supposed that Eskimos learned their skills in seal-hunting and igloo-building by observing polar bears. They were respected as spiritually powerful, and ‘thanksgiving’ rituals were performed for the bear after he was killed in a hunt. The kill was achieved with dogs to distract the bear, allowing the hunters to get close with their harpoons, bows and arrows.

Every part of the bear had a use: fur for trousers, meat for food, fat both in food and in lamps, sinews for sewing. The heart and gall-bladder were dried and powdered for medicine, while the liver was carefully buried since it was poisonous enough to kill a dog. The teeth were prized as talismans. In Siberia the prominent canines were accorded the greatest value, and occasionally traded with the forest-dwellers further south, who believed that with one attached to their hats they were safe from attack by a brown bear.


Alaska, 17th–18th century
Size: 42 cm long

This remarkable bow-drill depicts in lively detail on its four facets the summer festival activities of an Eskimo community. The brief period each year when bitter cold did not define their way of life inspired wild dancing, ball-games, wrestling, games with children, and life in tents. Fish are hung out to dry on trellises, kayaks overhauled, seals are dragged back along the ground and a huge walrus on a sleigh helped by dogs. Boats are out fishing and unloading the catch; some come back carrying sea-urchins; others are hunting walruses and whales with harpoons. There are 165 human figures in all, and while some activities, probably equipment maintenance, are difficult to decipher, it is a masterpiece of graphic wizardry.

Provenance: Beasley Collection