Prospective purchasers are advised that several countries prohibit the importation of property containing materials from endangered species, including but not limited to coral, ivory and tortoiseshell. Accordingly, prospective purchasers should familiarize themselves with relevant customs regulations prior to bidding if they intend to import this lot into another country.
For the ancient Punuk Eskimos of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, (600-1100 AD), life revolved around the hunting of the abundant sea mammal population in the Bering Sea. A combination of physical and spiritual means were addressed in order to ensure success in the hunt, and thus the continued survival of the village. Both of these aspects are strongly evident in these snow goggles.
The harsh arctic climate presented some unique impediments to the Eskimo hunter. The high latitude left the sun low on the horizon through much of the year, and the resulting glare was compounded by the highly reflective snow or water that covered the area. Without protection, a hunters eyes were left vulnerable to a painful and often serious condition known as snow blindness, similar to a sunburn. Ivory or wood snow goggles alleviated this effect by allowing the wearer to peer through narrow openings, while shading him from the excessive glare. Additionally, they afforded protection from wind, sleet, etc. while travelling.
Throughout history, Eskimo cultures have believed that all things in the physical world are imbued with a living spirit, or inua. In order to gain favor with the inua of his prey, a hunter would observe numerous taboos, and strive to use only the most beautiful, finely prepared hunting gear. Thus, much of the finest art of the Prehistoric Eskimo is that which is applied to hunting equipment.
In this artifact, an ingenious utilitarian object is elevated to the level of a work of fine art.
Not only have these goggles been exquisitely sculpted to fit the contours of the hunters face, but the artist has also gone to great lengths to embellish them with a beautifully engraved design. Here, he has boldly departed from the usual rigid symmetry and mechanical qualities common to most Punuk art, and instead has opted for a uniquely individual, asymmetrical design. His composition of flowing arcs, punctuated by drilled dots, references the organic rhythm of the earlier Old Bering Sea style, but renders it within the bounds of the newer, bolder simplicity of the Early Punuk style. The economy of line strengthens the impact of the image.
This piece captures two major forces in the Punuk Eskimo conception of the world. It is both a spiritual and a technical tour-de-force, executed in honor of the animals that offered their lives and allowed for the continued survival of the Eskimo people.
Bill Wolf November 16, 2005
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