Old Dirt – New Thoughts

November 19, 2008

Aniakchak Art – The Bone Face

Filed under: Aniakchak,Artifacts @ 2:31 am and

Bone Face from N454E477 NEQ Level 9 (135-140 BD)Art is one of the more exciting finds in archaeology and one of the more challenging materials to interpret. Our excavations at Aniakchak have produced a small, but intriguing assemblage of artwork and decorated objects.

One of my favorite artifacts from our last field season is this small face. It is obviously broken in half, but the face still resonates a kind of quiet presence. I’m not sure whether this object served a utilitarian purpose. It appears to have been a hollow tube made from cancellous sea mammal bone. Pronounced polish on the bottom edge of this artifact is suggestive of use-wear.

In an earlier post, I argued that the excavated art assemblage from Aniakchak differed from other published assemblages from the region. I’m less convinced of this claim the more I study the matter. The Aniakchak assemblage has strong parallels to the contemporary Kachemak tradition artwork, particularly the assemblage from the Uyak site on Kodiak Island occupied around AD 1-1100. Both Uyak and Aniakchak have small, ivory maskettes, animal figurines (including whale and caribou imagery), and other decorative pieces (Heizer 1956).

The maskettes from Aniakchak include this half face from the 2005 field season. Ivory maskette - Aniakchak 2005, Bag 2741This ivory maskette reminds me somewhat of the Phantom of the Opera mask. Recovered from a house floor occupied around AD 630, this perfect little carving is only 16.2 mm tall and 2.5 mm thick. The back side of the maskette is curved as if intended to be worn by a doll. Upon close inspection of the facial features I can see pronounced cheeks and shallow nostril holes. Faint tool marks suggest the face was polished, especially compared to the reverse side of the ‘owl face’ described in an earlier post. The hole above the left eye on the ‘half-face’ maskette indicates this artifact was attached to something else. A nearly identical hole can be observed on the maskette from Uyak. A somewhat similar maskette with suspension hole from Amchitka Island is illustrated in Lydia Black’s classic study: Aleut Art: Unangam Aguqaadangin, demonstrating these ivory maskettes had a wide distribution in the north Pacific (2003: Figure 46).

It’s interesting that the Aniakchak half-face maskette was unbroken and found on a house floor, while the other two ‘ancient faces’ from the site were both broken and recovered from midden deposits. As a small collection, the three faces display some of the variability in the Aniakchak artwork, with the ivory half-face maskette showing detailed work and careful finishing. The broken bone face is more simplistic, but also made of a porous material that limited the carver’s ability to add fine detail.

I plan to expand on these ideas regarding technique and condition, including looking at tool marks, use-wear, and breakage patterns when I discuss the remaining ivory pieces from Aniakchak. I’ve been inspired by the work of Randall White (2003, 2006) and his studies of ivory carvings from the European paleolithic. His strategy is to combine the study of iconography and context with a chaîne opératoire approach. Although our ability to interpret the symbolic meaning behind the ivory carvings from Aniakchak is limited, I’m hoping a thick description of these objects, following White’s approach, will lead to insight into the cultural practices associated with this artwork.

Ultimately, I think the most interesting aspect of the Aniakchak art assemblage are the similarities to artwork from the neighboring Kodiak Archipelago and Aleutian Islands. The cultural groups living throughout this part of the north Pacific differed substantially in many aspects of their utilitarian cultures, but apparently shared aspects of their artistic traditions. The ‘ancient faces’ of Aniakchak are a part of these traditions.

Update – Check out the artifact photographs from the Hot Springs Village Site (just across and down the Penninsula from Aniakchak) if you want to see more ‘ancient faces‘.


Black, Lydia T. 2003. Aleut Art: Unangam Aguqaadangin. Second Edition ed. Virginia Beach, VA: The Donning Company Publishers.

Heizer, Robert F. 1956. Archaeology of the Uyak Site, Kodiak Island, Alaska. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

White, Randall. 2006. The Women of Brassempouy: A century of research and interpretation. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 13, (4): 250-303.

———. 2003. Prehistoric art: The symbolic journey of mankindHarry N. Abrams.

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