ivory openowrk carvings resemling metal chains
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Ivory Ornaments
These ivory openwork carvings resemble metal chains and bangles used as power objects on 19th-century shaman costumes. Ivory copies of exotic west Siberian metal ornaments probably were used for similar purposes by Old Bering Sea shamans on garments and ritual equipment.

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Imitation of Iron

Burial 154 was originally dug in permafrost during the summertime. The floor was laid with planks, the body was laid out on the planks, and then ritual objects and offerings were added. After the burial was complete, it was covered with a roof that was supported by whale bones and then covered over with dirt. Immediately thereafter, water would have begun to seep into the grave and fill the grave container up, freezing solid because of the underlying permafrost. So when the archaeologists came to excavate it, they had to dig out the frozen soil and water and these artifacts were spectacularly preserved in this deep freeze environment. It's very rare to find a site with such a wide variety of organic materials, bone, ivory and wood, so well preserved.

Among of the artifacts that are extremely important in the grave are openwork carvings, including an ivory chain that was manufactured in imitation of iron chains similar to those used in the ceremonial life of Siberian shamans further west. Nineteenth-century Alaskan Eskimos believed the sounds of chains and rattles pleased sea mammal spirits and helped draw them to the hunter.

Iron was very scarce. There were bits of pieces of iron found in some of these burials and it appears that some of the artifacts were actually carved with iron tools. Nonetheless, iron was extremely scarce and a valuable trade commodity and it appears that the ivory chains were imitations of these powerful Siberian implements. The open-work carving resembles cast bronze or iron objects from further west in Siberia.

The florescence of the Old Bering Sea complex seems to have been assisted, though only to a limited extent, by the acquisition of metal, particularly of iron, tools. Both linguistic and archeological evidence suggest the Japanese Sea as the source of Old Bering Sea metal. Remains of iron tools have been found at both Ipiutak and Old Bering Sea culture sites. One can therefore suggest that the ornamental art of these cultures developed under the oblique influence of ancient Far Eastern civilization.

In addition to the many artifacts that were used to hunt the native game of Bering Strait, Burial 154 includes ritual objects and other materials which suggest that the Eskimos of the Old Bering Sea culture were in contact with other peoples further west in Asia and were part of a larger world system.

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

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