Harpoon Socket Piece Fragment – Old Bering Sea III, St Lawrence Island, Alaska

The harpoon has been essential to the lifeways of the peoples living on either side of the Bering Sea for millennia. It has undergone significant evolution in design during its long history, refined as both a tool and an object of artistic focus. The advent of the toggling harpoon in about 1500 B.C. was particularly revolutionary in its development. Elements of these harpoons—head, foreshaft, socket piece, and counterweight—were made of walrus ivory and, over time, artists began to embellish them with delicately incised designs. Spirits that attracted game and that fortified the harpoon itself were among the depictions in these drawings. By the first half of the first millennium A.D., the incised patterns had become both elegant and complex and often included "hidden" or cryptic images.

This finely worked socket piece offers a showcase of the enigmatic curvilinear designs found on decorated toggling harpoons. The incisions wrap around the full surface of the cylinder, presenting a flowing host of bowed, cell-like motifs and sharply pointed elements that overlap and abut one another in an abstract press. Beguiling in visual intent, they evoke a mass of eyes, faces or animal forms that separate, merge, and alter their relationships to one another depending upon the shifting perspective of the viewer. Laid out two-dimensionally, the composition is revealed to be bilaterally symmetrical.

When used in the hunt, the hollow socket piece held the foreshaft of the harpoon head at one end and was placed over the main shaft of the harpoon like a sheath or cap, lashed securely with cord. The detachable blade was placed over the end of the foreshaft in like fashion and was attached to a long cord lead which was tied off elsewhere, ensuring the blade of the harpoon would not be lost when separating from the foreshaft and allowing the hunter to haul in his prey once the harpoon had struck the mark. Devoid of any accompanying harpoon elements, this beautifully made socket piece may have been repurposed for another use.

AD 100–400
Walrus ivory
H: 5 1/2"

Kenneth Pushkin, Santa Fe, collected on St. Lawrence Island in 1978

Faith-Dorian and Martin Wright Collection, New York

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