Eskimo Burial Mask
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Burial Mask
This quintessentially Eskimo mask has eyeholes blocked by carved bone eyes, a feature of Siberian shaman costumes and North Pacific deathmasks in general. It was probably placed over the deceased's face at the time of death to prevent the shaman's spirit from returning to animate the body.

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The Power of the Mask

Perhaps the most striking feature of the burial was a wonderful mask which was excavated from between the knees of this shaman, a mature individual in her 40's or 50's. The mask, which probably had feathers, tufts of hair, or other ornaments in the small holes around the edges, is a very close likeness to an Eskimo racial type, with high cheek bones, full and glossy; one can almost feel the oil in the skin. It is one of the earliest masks known from Arctic cultures.. A death mask, it would have been carved to fit over the face of the deceased person between the time of death and when the person could be buried.

In this case the mask has blocked eyes of bone, so that evil spirits could not re-invade and take possession of the "empty" body. An individual who was a shaman would be very dangerous if possessed by evil spirits. Similar death masks were used to cover the faces of deceased people in Siberia in the 19th-20th centuries. The use of bone or ivory or jet eyes was frequently known in archaeological contexts; the Ipiutak site has masks, and actual skeletons of individuals, whose eye orbits are filled with jet and ivory eyes. This may also be related to vision ritual and vision magic, as a common feature of native peoples of the North Pacific. Shaman's masks and headresses have tassles that hide the faces and obscure the vision of these individuals.

The mask was uncovered initially 30 years ago by native excavators assisting the Soviet archaeologists D.A. Sergeev and S.A. Arutiunov. As they brushed away the soil, the features of a perfect likeness of a god that they recognized from their mythology stared out from the ground at them, and tremendous horror broke out among the native Yup'ik excavators. They immediately withdrew from the burial and refused to continue work, feeling that if they did there would be some harm which would befall them.

Dorian Sergeev, himself a native anthropologist, offered to finish the excavation and take on all the evil that might be present in the mask. He was the one who reached in and cleared the burial mask off, then drew it out of the ice encrusted bottom of the grave, and brought it up into daylight for the first time in 2,000 years.

Some days after that the excavators left the site to return to Moscow. They gathered their materials together into their umiaks that the natives had provided; they packed up their artifacts and brought them with them. And a short time after they left, a storm broke out as they were travelling over the water. They had to take refuge on a small island, nearly crashing their boats, and were marooned there for several days, until they had almost run out of food. Of course, the Siberian natives saw this as a fulfillment of the power of the mask. Later, Sergeev and his family suffered many other calamaties.

Today the Soviet archaeologists believe that there is real power in this mask.

Russian excavations are still continuing at the Ekven site, which is threatened by sea erosion. Despite the importance of the finds, controversy exists here and in other areas of the North over excavating burials. Today such work is done only with the full consent and participation of local native people. The search for knowledge, in itself, is no longer justification for one culture to exploit the ancestral sites of another people.

Those interested in exploring the repatriation movement as it affects native artifacts and museum collections can do at the Smithsonian Repatriation website.

- Sergei Arutiunov, William W. Fitzhugh, ed. J. Prusinski

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