mask plaques and goggles
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Masked Spirits
Mask plaques and a set of dance goggles display a variety of masking traditions and spirits (bird, tunghak, and transformed man) known to Old Bering Sea people.


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Diversity of Design

This walrus ivory bird plaque, maskette, and set of wooden dance goggles reflect artistic traditions of Eskimo mythology and folklore as recorded in this 2,000-year-old find. Many of the same traditions are found among 19th-century Yup'ik and Inupiat peoples; they are especially strong in the case of the Yup'ik-speaking Bering Sea Eskimo, whose material and spiritual culture appears derived with little modification from the early Paleoeskimo cultures of the Bering Strait.

The great number of masks and zoomorphic images in the Old Bering Sea complex seems to have been related, though through a process not yet understood, to the art of the Scytho-Siberian, Shang, and Eastern Chou peoples on the one hand, and to Northwest Coast Indians on the other. Art, technology, funeral practices, and shamanism somehow seem to be deeply involved in these transfers.

The stylistic complexity of the art of Okvik, Old Bering Sea, and Ipiutak cultures seems to reflect more than individual creativeness. Not only are no two implements decorated in the same style; diversity seems to be an end in itself, expressing an individual artisan's identity and, through his works, his respect for the spirits upon whom he and his community depended.

This concept, the creation of beautiful works as a sign of respect to the spirits, was deeply rooted in Bering Sea Eskimo life and seems likely to have been a motivating factor in ancient ancient Eskimo production as well. This attitude of individual artistic exuberance, apparently practiced by individual carvers and not simply by master artisans or specialists, contrasts strongly with the replicative, mechanical art of the succeeding Punuk period, a time when corporate social logic and belief in the power of technology itself seems to have gained sway over the spiritual powers and identities of individual hunters and seamstresses.

- William W. Fitzhugh, ed. J. Prusinski

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