22 July 2010

Ghostly face carving unearthed from Arctic site of extinct Dorset culture

Montreal Gazette
July 21, 2010

A Quebec archeologist has unearthed the ghostly carving of a face left buried on a remote Arctic island inhabited 1,000 years ago by the extinct Dorset culture the native people who mysteriously vanished from Canada's North after the ancestors of modern day Inuit arrived in this country.

The small, elaborately sculpted "maskette" - possibly worn as an amulet by a shaman serving as a Dorset tribe's guide to the spiritual world - is believed to have been made from walrus ivory and was found on one of the Nuvuk Islands at the northwestern tip of Quebec's Ungava Peninsula.

Traces of the long-lost Dorset or "Paleo-Eskimo" people, who are known to have evolved an artistically advanced society despite their harsh Arctic living conditions, are among the most prized discoveries in Canadian archaeology.

And the carved face, possibly meant to depict a female elder who provided leadership to her community, represents a particularly evocative image, with ears, eyes, nose and mouth all clearly defined on the elongated piece of ivory.

"It may have had some kind of shamanic meaning, but of course we can only offer various possible explanations," Susan Lofthouse, an archeologist with the Montreal-based Avataq Cultural Institute, told Postmedia News.

"Alternatively it could have served as a toy, or some kind of good luck amulet."

Measuring just five centimetres in length, the object was discovered last year during a dig at a known Dorset dwelling site by a group of Lofthouse-led Inuit high school students from nearby Ivujivik, along with graduate students from Universite Laval and Universite de Montreal.

"The moment of discovery was, of course, exciting," Lofthouse recalled. "I was helping one of the teenagers, Siaja Paningajak, excavate her square, and suddenly the maskette was uncovered."

Lofthouse noted that other Dorset depictions of human faces have been found over the years, but "none had the same level of detail that we can see in the Nuvuk Islands maskette."

Particularly intriguing is the possibility that horizontal lines etched below the figure's mouth could represent facial tattoos - a decorative art practiced by ancestral Inuit that may also have been used by the Dorset.

Remarkably, the ancient Inuit chin-tattooing tradition became part of a lively parliamentary debate in Ottawa last year as MPs weighed the merits of officially renaming the country's northern shipping route the "Canadian" Northwest Passage in a bid to symbolically strengthen the country's sovereignty claims in the region.

At the time, Inuit leaders successfully campaigned for the simultaneous adoption of an official aboriginal name for the waterway - "Tallurutik" - that is derived from the tattooing ritual among Canada's Inuit and a related landscape feature on Devon Island, at the eastern entrance to the passage, that appears as thin, dark lines running horizontally along shoreline cliffs.

"I do like the idea that (the maskette) could represent a woman, since distinct depictions of women are so rare in the Dorset archaeological record," said Lofthouse.

"Historically, Inuit women wore facial tattoos - in some areas this was still practiced in the last century," she added. "But we have no evidence one way or the other to tell us that Dorset women did the same thing."

See the historical fiction Axe of Iron series of books that details the Dorset culture and the Greenland Vikings who had relations with them. http://www.atlasbooks.com/marktplc/10367.htm

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