“I was frightened out of my wits by it”
Art, Life & Death among the Arctic Dorset Culture
“One of the last spots the Tuniit occupied in the Igloolik region was the island of Uglit, about forty miles south of Igloolik. Little by little, they had been "made landless" [nunaiqtitaulaurmata] and forced to abandon their best hunting camps: Igloolik, Alarnerk, and Pingerk'alik. Finally, the Eskimos had come and installed themselves on Uglit. Because of this, the Tuniit left for K'immertorvik, south of Uglit. However, one of them hesitated a long while before deciding to depart. At last, sick at heart, he made up his mind, but just before leaving his beloved island, he set up a howl, grimacing with rage at the Inuit, and struck the ground repeatedly with his harpoon. And such was his strength, the splinters of rock flew in the air. The deep marks made by his harpoon are still to be seen near the shore.”
“Once the Tuniit lived at Qingmertoq (Adelaide Peninsula); the land was taken from them by the Ugjulingmiut. The Tuniit fled eastward to Saitoq, but when they reached Naparutalik, they threw off all their clothes and swam over Kingarsuit. On the little island Pagdlagfik, they reached land, but they were so exhausted that they fell forward and died. They also lived at Itivnarsuk, Back River, and wept when they were driven away from this good hunting ground.”
Anon., Nattilingmiut, Mathiassen 1927:187
These two quotes are taken from John Bennet and Susan Rowley’s 2004 book ‘Uqalurait: An Oral History of Nunavut’. They nicely set the context for any discussion of how the Arctic came to be populated as it did and who lived there before the Inuit. The Tuniit, characters of Inuit oral history and folklore, are known to archaeologists and historians as the Dorset People, or the Dorset Culture. Named after Cape Dorset in 1925 where newly excavated artefacts revealed striking differences between the later Inuit people and an earlier culture; anthropologist Diamond Jenness demonstrated that these older objects were manufactured by another society, in particular showing that these small portable pieces of art were highly distinct and visually striking.
Since their initial discovery, the Dorset Culture and their artwork have gone hand-in-hand, much like the cultures of the Pacific Northwest. Their skill for making small miniature pieces, often carved into human or animal forms, has given them an elite status among museum and gallery curators around the world. But what is so distinct and unusual about Dorset artwork, how did it come to define an entire, extinct, group of people? As we turn to answer these questions we are confronted with a more unsettling one - why is Dorset artwork so ‘dark’ and even frightening? As strange as this may sound, the reputation of the Dorset miniatures isn’t entirely benevolent. Strange, contorted faces. Descriptions of ‘agonised expressions’ and ‘violent, disturbing’ visages abound within analyses of Dorset art. What does this mean and what can it tell us, if anything, about why the Dorset disappeared from the earth?
Across the Ice
The Dorset emerge into the murk of prehistory from the uninspiringly named and mysterious ‘Pre-Dorset’ Culture. Alternatively the Dorset could have arisen from another similar people, the Saqqaq, but distinguishing between these early Arctic societies is fraught with difficulty. Dated to between 4,500 and 2,700 years ago, the Pre-Dorset people seem to have been scattered across the Central and Eastern Canadian Arctic. Their settlements have been found both inland and on the coast, with many now submerged but also some beach sites raised far above the shoreline, a result of ‘isostatic tilting’, or the way the land rises and falls after the weight of glaciers is removed. The little we know about their lives comes from extended studies of stone tools and the circular house structures they left behind. As a way of life, they seemed to be seasonally mobile hunters and foragers, perhaps gathering in larger numbers at certain times of year and dispersing for the summer months.
The Dorset which eventually differentiate themselves from this large culture-zone are notable for apparently abandoning both stone drill and bow-and-arrow technology. The reasons behind this will be forever an enigma, since both would have been useful to them, drills in particular. Another useful ‘technology’ which the Dorset appeared to have lacked are dogs. Rather than exploit land mammals such as bears and caribou, or specialise in hunting whales, the Dorset seem to have based their food supply on seal and walrus hunting using holes and edges in the sea-ice. The demands of this form of subsistence necessitated a mastery of cold weather environments, in particular clothing and shelter, as well as starting and maintaining fires and fresh water supplies.
I’ve written about shamanism in a previous article and it remains a subject of fascination for me. The ‘strict’ school of shamanic studies likes to maintain a boundary between Siberian and non-Siberian forms of shamanic practice. Palaeo-Eskimo and Dorset shamanism is safely assumed to be part of a cultural zone of earlier shamanic developments, with some scholars referring to a ‘common Uralo-Siberian cosmology’, stretching from northern Scandinavia around the Taiga and Arctic Circle into Canada and Greenland.
Siberian cosmology, broadly speaking, splits the world into a tripartite structure - an underworld, an above world and the middle world. A shaman is someone who is able to access all three of these realms, to contact spirits, to negotiate with animals for the hunt, to heal the living, speak to the dead and maintain a balance in the present. How they do this differs, but generally involves the shaman entering ‘alternate states of consciousness’, which helps their soul depart their body and ‘fly’ between worlds. This is experienced, or reported by contemporary shamans, as a feeling of physically levitating and gliding through the air.
Animals are a crucial part of the shamanic cosmology. Animals enter into deals or bargains with humans, giving up their corporeal forms to be eaten, in exchange for humans performing the necessary rituals and rites of hunting, eating and disposing of the remains. Bears in particular have been seen as powerful spiritual animals and ‘bear cults’ are found across the circumpolar region. Dismembering an animal, or a human, is a task laden with much spiritual importance. The skeleton of a living being, the vessel of the soul, plays a crucial role in Siberian shamanistic thought. As part of the initiation into shaman-hood, the candidate must undergo ‘death’ of a sort. Often in an ecstatic trance or fever, the candidate experiences being killed and dismembered, before being put back together again by the ancestors and re-fleshed. Sometimes the new shaman can feel ‘extra’ bones or aching, pain or a sense of dissatisfaction with their new body. Sometimes their bones have been replaced with iron. Animals too can be resurrected by gathering their bones and disposing of them correctly. In this context bear skeletons and skins are particularly potent objects.
Miniatures and Amulets - Dorset Artwork
Turning to the artwork itself, we can broadly break it down into several categories, we will focus on the first three, as they make up the bulk of the collections:
Animal / Zoomorphic Figurines
Toys and Dolls
Human carvings make up roughly 20% of the total recovered artwork, made from soapstone, bone, ivory and wood. A theme we will return to is the skewed production of the artwork across the timespan of Dorset history. Over 70% of all the human artwork was manufactured in the Late Period. Photographs of the different styles can’t do justice to them, since as portable figures they have no front or back, no base and no intended direction of gaze. Their detailing spans the whole 3-dimensions of the object. As a general rule, most critics and experts are unanimous in declaring Dorset artwork a function of their magico-religious worldview:
"Although any attempt to determine the function of a prehistoric art must be highly speculative, archaeologists and art historians generally agree that the art of the Dorset People was not primarily decorative, but was intimately involved with magic, and in particular, with the magical rituals of shamans” (Robert McGhee, 1980)
A more detailed analysis splits the human style down to masks, whole bodies, faces, objects with multiple faces and so on. What should concern us here, as an overview article, is the unique cultural moment that Dorset human art represents. The attention paid to faces, facial expressions, emotions and details such as tattoos and clothing, is markedly different from other Arctic peoples, both before and after them. The face, and mouth in particular, are important parts of Siberian shamanistic thought. The links between breath, the soul, the display of fear, anger, hate, love, upset, happiness on the face, are all wrapped up in way the human soul interacts with the body.
Many who have worked with these figures have expressed a range of emotions themselves on seeing the faces:
“The human faces in some of the carvings seem tortured and psychotic to some viewers… one archaeologist excavating an Ipiutak burial site found a small carved caribou hoof protruding on a shaft from the pelvic region of a human skeleton. He cleared more dirt away to find this long ivory shaft penetrated the entire vertebral column and emerged in the skull, where it curved forward into the space where the mouth would have been. It terminated in a miniature human head, opened in supplication”
“ A young archaeologist working on a Dorset site uncovered a caribou scapula that left him shaken. Both surfaces of this flat bone were incised with scores of small human faces with gaping mouths. He remembers sitting with the scapula in his hands and dumbly contemplating the agonised expressions. “I was frightened out of my wits by it” he told me. He got up twice in the night to unpack the piece and look at it, he was so disturbed.”
Both of these extracts come from Barry Lopez’s book Arctic Dreams, where he ponders at length on the meaning of these pieces, and of Dorset artwork in general.
Animal / Zoomorphic Figurines
Numerous animals have been represented in Dorset art, some so skilfully made that archaeologists can determine which variety of seabird has been carved. These include whales, weasels, raptors, seals and owls. But there are an overwhelming number of polar bear figurines among Dorset collections. By one count, 100 of 118 miniatures were polar bear depictions. So it is worth unpacking why the bear is so over-represented in this tradition.
The importance of bears to Siberian shamanic cosmology can’t be overstated. From Korea to Finland, the ‘Bear Cult’ has been well explored and documented by ethnographers over the centuries. While some archaeologists make a claim for the cult reaching back into the Palaeolithic, we need not let this have any bearing on the Dorset variant. The common features of the cult are: lexical taboo - not speaking the true name of the bear, often the euphemisms constantly change to ensure the bear can’t understand what is being said; a Bear Festival, in which a young captive bear is raised and ceremonially killed, the meat eaten and the bones arranged in a specific deposition and the belief that bears can speak or at least comprehend human language and may become angry if offended.
The images above show some of these common themes, including the ‘flying/swimming’ bear motif, the x-shaped incisions and other lines and the ‘hollow’ bear which may represent the soul departing the body. The shamanic connections to flying are well described and many stories of shamans ‘diving’ to the bottom of the sea while wearing a bear skin, or ‘flying’ with a spirit bear have been documented. The incisions almost certainly represent the ceremonial carving and disarticulation of the bear during the festival or other possible ritual event. Dorset houses are speculated to have been laid out following a cosmological map, with pairs of bear mandibles often buried at entrances and with the internal divisions potentially mimicking the vertebrae.
It’s also worth mentioning that of all the cultures in the world, the Dorset probably had the closest relationship with the polar bear. Their economy was based on seal and walrus ice hunting, which is exactly the ecological niche exploited by bears. With their keen sense of smell and the Dorset lacking dogs, tracking and observing them was probably vital for a successful hunt. Bears also likely raided meat caches, camps and perhaps occasionally killed a Dorset child or elder. All this adds weight to the idea that the bear was of crucial importance to the Dorset, likely building on an already existing Siberian bear cosmology, but adapted to the ecological demands and spiritual power of aquatic hunting and stalking.
Many other animals were also produced and several key points regarding shamanism can be made here:
waterbirds are often another revered animal, since they can access all three realms of water, land and air
fragments of ‘sucking tubes’ are found, decorated with animal images
Shamanic ‘sucking tubes’ sound incredibly strange, and they refer to the paraphernalia a shaman might use to literally ‘suck’ bad or evil spirits out of a sick person’s body. Shamanic medicine is concerned with how the presence of negative spirits or angered ancestors damages the body, and they learn how to remove these, sometimes using unusual kit like these tubes.
Amulets will be the last category to discuss. These objects are often hard to define and there are significant overlaps between these and other figurines.
Amulets typically refer to objects which are worn or kept and serve to protect or provide the owner with some kind of power or protection. The full range of amulet use worldwide is vast, but Dorset amulets are usually associated with ‘sympathetic hunting magic’. In simple terms this means an object which gives the wearer some control or mastery over nature, in particular control over hunting animals. These can be made from the animal itself (ivory, bone), can be made to look like the animal or an important part of the animal (caribou hooves are common) or in some way connect the owner to the animal. A tell-tale sign is the presence of holes used for stringing and wearing them.
Dorset Art & their Disappearance
One of the reasons people remain fascinated by the Dorset is their sudden disappearance from human history. Despite having a long run across the Arctic, within a few short centuries they seemed to have died out. The reasons for this are complex but several prominent theories include:
The arrival of the Thule Inuit who may have physically killed and removed the Dorset and/or competed for land and hunting grounds
Alongside this, the technological superiority of the Thule and the relative ‘primitive’ nature of Dorset technology
The failure of the Dorset to adapt to a rapidly changing environment, which saw their ice floes and hunting grounds melt and vanish
The Dorset time frame has been divided into an Early (500 BC to 0 AD), Middle (up to 500 AD) and Late Dorset Period (up to 1000 AD). Some researchers include a Terminal phase (1000 AD onward until their extinction). Alongside these dates was the Medieval Warm Period ( ca 950 AD to 1250 AD), which has important explanatory power for why the Dorset disappeared.
In the early 1980’s, two researchers - Lyons and Taçon - produced a novel interpretation for why the Dorset vanished and how their artwork related to this event. It has long been noted that the majority of Dorset art was produced during their Late Period, with an extreme flurry of production towards the end. This might of course be preservation bias, but Lyons and Taçon speculated that the warming climate forced the Dorset away from their traditional way of life, and that the psychological stress of this change was reflected in their increasingly dark and disturbed artwork.
More recent research, and oral testimony, has added to this picture the incoming Thule people, who seem to have deliberately marginalised the Dorset in many places and forced them off their land. While some excavations have shown the Inuit avoiding Dorset campsites, plenty more reveal a sequence of events that point towards a policy of isolation and exclusion by the Thule.
The Thule themselves emerge from a mixture of prehistoric cultures. Their earliest manifestation is the Old Bering Sea Culture, originating around 400 AD as a specialist whale hunting people. Around 900 AD another culture, the Birnik, moved northwards to take advantage of the warming weather. From here they crossed the 2600 miles between Point Barrow and Peary Land at a remarkable pace, bringing a technological toolkit of kayaks, refined whale harpoons, dog sleds and improvements in cold weather architecture. Genetic evidence in the form of haplogroup A2a confirms this tale of Siberian expansion and also shows a complete eradication of the Dorset gene-pool itself. The intriguing tale of the Sadlermiut people, a small group of hunters living in Hudson Bay up until the early 1900’s, initially showed promise that some Dorset may have survived the encounter with the Thule. This was however, ruled out by genetic tests in 2012, showing no connection between them and the Dorset.
“grimacing with rage”
Returning to the oral legend at the beginning of the article, what we have seen across this brief examination of Dorset art and culture strongly supports the consensus view: That the Dorset were driven away from their lands through a combination of rapid climate change, inability to adapt and aggressive Thule expansion. Their artwork, both beautiful in its skill and refinement, but also disturbingly dark at times, reveals a culture which was pushed into extinction. One can only imagine how they must have poured their emotions out into their carvings, the tortured, anguished faces perhaps reflecting their internal devastation. Watching strangers move into their ancestral lands, where their relatives were buried and scattered, where generations had hunted and thrived, must have been existentially horrifying. The Arctic often produces a grim and melancholic character in its denizens, added to this the upset and anguish of losing everything that made them a people, the Dorset must have been a dreadful sight towards the end. Starving, angry, without their possessions or any ability to hunt. We would do well to reflect that the tendency for one human group to oust another is hardly limited to the ‘colonial period’ and has been around longer than many would care to imagine.