Princeton Exhibition Explores the Unique and Compelling Art of Ancient Hunters

The Princeton University Art Museum will present Gifts from the Ancestors: Ancient Ivories of Bering Strait, a major exhibition that brings to light the artistry and life practices of the hunters who worked across two millennia in what are now the American and Russian sides of Bering Strait. On view October 3, 2009, through January 10, 2010, the exhibition offers the opportunity to discover a little-known aspect of the art of the ancient Americas and represents a groundbreaking partnership between one of the world’s great research universities and the Native peoples of the Bering Strait region.

Harpoon counterweight, Okvik, OBS I. Walrus ivory, l. 11.5 cm., Private Collection, New York. Photo: Bruce M. White

Gifts from the Ancestors features nearly 200 of the finest works of walrus ivory carving drawn from the Museum’s own holdings along with loans from more than twenty public and private collections around the globe, including rare examples from recent Russian excavations at Ekven, Chukotka, which will be exhibited for the first time in North America. In addition, works by award-winning contemporary artist and St. Lawrence Islander Susie Silook and master carvers Sergei Tegryl’kut and Mikhail Leyviteu from Chukotka, Russia, will be presented to bridge past and present and reveal how today’s ivory artists continue to be inspired by ancient forms and motifs and the millennia-old relationships among people, animals, and the environment.

“The extraordinary works of art on view in this exhibition are unlike the work of any other of the world’s cultures,” notes Museum Director James Steward. “They demand our close attention in their gentle, detailed beauty. Even as our focus here is primarily aesthetic and sociological, these survivals from the ancient past have a shocking timeliness as we increasingly think about how such indigenous artistic practices can survive the onslaught of climate change.”

The appearance of small, exquisitely carved ivories in the Bering Strait region marks an extraordinary florescence in the art and culture of North America. The discovery in the 1930s and 1940s of superb carvings of animals, mythical beasts, shape-shifting creatures, masks, and human figurines astounded scholars and excited collectors. Nevertheless, the remarkable objects that belong to this fascinating, sometimes frightening, world of hunting-related art remain largely unknown.

“Bering Sea Eskimo sculpture and engraved arts, like the art of Late Paleolithic peoples, illustrates the capacity for arctic hunting cultures to produce works of art as rich in spiritual content as they are in technological complexity and aesthetic beauty,” stated William W. Fitzhugh, curator of North American Archaeology and Director, Arctic Studies Center, Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution, and guest co-curator of Gifts from the Ancestors. “Through these ornamented harpoons and hunting implements we begin to understand the connections between art, technology, and spiritual beliefs that have been central to the lives of hunting peoples for thousands of years.”

Archaeologists have spent nearly a century examining artifacts excavated from frozen sites and cemeteries along the shores of the Chukchi and Bering Seas, where peoples of shared Eurasian and North American heritage have resided for more than 2,000 years, to reveal the stories surrounding these ancient peoples and the unique art forms they created. These artifacts, which include hunting implements, tools, ornaments, ritual objects, and figures in human and animal form, have traveled varied routes from past to present, and in so doing have acquired a multitude of meanings and purposes. The exhibition, related catalogue, and Web site [] explore the historical, cultural, and archaeological significance of the ivories as well as the more recent social issues surrounding these objects from myriad perspectives, including those of indigenous communities, Native artists, archaeologists, museums, and participants in the art market.

Bering Strait
Bering Strait is a narrow ocean gateway between the Chukchi and Bering Seas. The Strait, which at its narrowest point is eighty-five kilometers wide, connects the Arctic and Pacific Ocean basins and is the point of closest proximity between Asia and North America. The Strait was once a land bridge connecting the two continents at the end of the Pleistocene era (ca. 10,000 B.C.) when the sea level was low. Even today, Big Diomede Island (belonging to Russia) and Little Diomede Island (part of the United States) provide “stepping stones” across the channel, bridging the two continents.

Companion Exhibition
In conjunction with Gifts from the Ancestors, an exhibition of works by contemporary Alaskan Native artists, Dry Ice: Alaska Native Artists and the Landscape, will be on view from October 1 through November 21, 2009 at the Arts Council of Princeton.

Companion Exhibition
In conjunction with Gifts from the Ancestors, an exhibition of works by contemporary Alaskan Native artists, Dry Ice: Alaska Native Artists and the Landscape, will be on view from October 1 through November 21, 2009 at the Arts Council of Princeton.

The Princeton University Art Museum is located at the heart of the Princeton University campus, and only a short walk from the shops and restaurants on Princeton’s Nassau Street. Museum admission is free and open to the public. Hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Thursday, 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., and Sunday, 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. Free highlights tours of the collection are given every Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. The Museum is closed Mondays and major holidays. For information, please visit the Museum’s Web site at or call (609) 258-3788.