The below article is from:


The University of Pennsylvania Museum Collection of Chipped Stone Amulets from Point Barrow, Alaska

Please note that I have not included all of U of Penn Amulets.


The two colored photographs are from the California Academy of Sciences collection

They graciously have allowed me to use the photographs from their website


California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco

California Academy of Sciences
Golden Gate Park

55 Music Concourse Drive
San Francisco, California 94118


  Whales formed the nucleus of the subsistence activities at Point Barrow and in fact created the economic basis for the large permanent villages found along Bering Strait and in North Alaska. Although a number of species are available, such as the beluga and killer whale, the bowhead whales, hunted along spring ice leads, were overwhelmingly important. Spencer (1959:26) reports that up to twenty five of these massive animals might be taken during a successful spring season. This would represent hundreds of tons of meat, blubber, skin and bone. In addition, much of the social and ceremonial life at Point Barrow revolved around a successful whale hunt. Given the Inuit conceptualization of animistic spirits and the economic importance of the whale hunt, it is not at all surprising to find a large number of whale amulets represented in this collection.


  All of the chipped stone whale amulets are meant to be viewed from a dorsal perspective, as if observing a swimming or breaching whale from above. The whales in the upper two rows of Plate 2 are rather realistically portrayed in terms of general body form and the presence of flippers and tails. Those in the lower two rows are much more abstractly rendered. These amulets are generally shorter and wider than those in the top two rows. The flukes are indicated in an attenuated manner either by slight bulges or, in some cases, accentuated by notches (N, Q) and the tails are knob-like projections for attaching sinews. As such, these amulets run the full gamut of natural to highly abstract or conventionalized forms. This formal array appears to be conceptually akin to the bone and ivory animal amulets found in Middle Dorset houses and midden debris at Port aux Choix-2, Newfoundland (Harp 1969/70). Again, I propose no direct cultural historical connection - merely the possibility of a conceptual similarity between these archaeologically and ethnographically known groups.


  The underlying motives for such a conceptualization remain unclear. These conventionalized forms are certainly not poorly conceived nor poorly executed approximations of more naturalistic forms. The abstract forms are knapped with the same degree of precision and control as the naturalistic forms. Most, in fact, have plano-convex or slight concave-convex faces indicating dorsal and ventral sides of the whale. There is, however, a relatively clear differentiation in raw materials; chert and jasper forms are natural (except E), while obsidian and quartz crystal forms are conventionalized (except R). There seems to be no technological explanation for this difference, since all these materials are cryptocrystalline and fracture in identical patterns. Although this correlation may be fortuitous, a symbolic explanation may account for this difference in raw material and degree of naturalness or abstraction. Is it perhaps possible that the transparent and translucent nature of the quartz and obsidian is associated with the whale's spirit, while the opaque nature of chert and jasper is associated with the concrete living animal? Note that the naturally rendered amulets illustrated in Plate 1 are of chert or jasper. The single exception is 1:L whose identification is by no means certain. Thus, it may be possible that the Inuit are in general expressing a division between the concrete living animal and the abstract animal spirit by their use of particular raw materials. A similar suggestion by McGhee (1977) has been offered to explain difference in prehistoric Thule raw materials usage among artifacts associated with land and sea hunting and related activities. Confirmation of this tentative suggestion must await further observations by ethnographers and archaeologists.


  Turning to a description of the individual pieces, we find that 2:A of black chert is the largest and most realistically rendered amulet. The flukes and tail are realistically portrayed and the back is slightly arched, giving it a very life-like appearance. The next specimen, 2:B, is of red jasper with realistically defined flukes and a blunt tail. A knotted and braided sinew is lashed just ahead of the tail for attachment. A heavy covering of grease and soot was deliberately smeared on this amulet or may have resulted from lying in an amulet box. The last two in this row are also well ­ executed natural forms; Plate 2:C has a flared tail while 2:D has a knob-like tail. Plate 2:E represents the single naturalistically rendered whale in quartz crystal. The lateral edges on both sides are covered with soot and grease. A single strand of knotted sinew is attached just in front of the tail. Two light blue seed beads have also been threaded onto the sinew. Plates 2:F-H require little comment except to note that F has a broken snout. The whale illustrated on Plate 2:1 is particularly interesting since it is the only stone amulet in the collection made of steatite, although a number are illustrated in Nelson (1899:439) and Murdoch (1892:403, 404). Since steatite is not available in the western Arctic, the material was probably obtained through trade from the Canadian Arctic. This figure has been carved and polished and has a single continuous line representing the mouth. Two small punctates are present, just behind the mouth indicating the eyes. At the tip of the slightly battered snout is an incised X which is bisected by the mouth line. These incisions may represent the lashing slits for the towing lines used to haul the dead animal back to a convenient butchering site.




  The remainder of the amulets, Plate 2:J-R, are much more abstractly conceived, but a number of attribute similarities to the natural whale amulets confirm their identities. The quartz crystal amulets illustrated in Plate 2:J and K have a body contour similar to the natural forms. The original crystal facet is present on the ventral surface of both pieces, giving them a plano­ convex longitudinal curve. The flukes of 2:J are indicated by a slight constriction at the base of the head and a slight bulge just to the rear. The flukes of 2:K are portrayed by two small bumps similar to the natural forms. The tails on both are knob-like and small patches of soot and grease still adhere. The crystal amulet illustrated in 2:L is much more oval in outline than the others. The whale form is indicated primarily by a slight constriction which separates the head from the body. The tail is knob-like and there are two notches at the base for holding the braided sinew. A thick deposit of soot and grease is found especially on the lateral margins and the ventral surface near the snout. The identification of the amulet illustrated on Plate 2:M is based on the general outline of the head and the presence of two lateral flukes. The distal end opposite the hole has been heavily ground and polished as have both surfaces. This is the only whale amulet with a drilled suspension hole. The next amulet, Plate 2:N, has the general body outline of a whale and a plano­ convex longitudinal curve representing a swimming or breaching whale. Two small notches are present just behind the slightly bulging flukes and may have functioned for the attachment of sinew. This piece is heavily ground over both surfaces and lateral edges, and soot and grease are still adhering to many of the flake scars. The amulet on Plate 2:0 is much rounder than other whale effigies. However, the slight constriction along the margins indicate a separate head and body region. Two notches at the base of the knob-like tail presumably functioned for sinew attachment. The arrises or flake scar junctures show moderate grinding and soot and grease are present on the deeper flake scars. The amulet illustrated on Plate 2:P has a snout which is both squared off and sharply pointed, unlike other forms. However, the over-all body form and the almost realistically portrayed tail indicate a whale identification. Again, the arrises are well ground and many of the deeper flake scars have a covering of soot and grease. Amulet 2:Q is similar to 2:N insofar as two lateral notches are present just behind the small bulges representing flukes. Slight lateral constrictions just ahead of the flukes serve to separate the head and body sections. The tail is knob-like and the two notches at the base function to attach the sinew line. The arrises are only slightly ground and a thin residue of grease and soot still adheres. The identification of the gray chert amulet 2:R is the most uncertain. It is teardrop shaped in outline with a rather pointed proximal end. There is no single attribute on this piece that clearly indicates a whale effigy. However, its general similarity to the other abstract forms may well indicate that a whale effigy is intended.


  The use of chipped stone amulets among the Inuit is not well known or apparently widely practiced during the prehistoric or historic periods. Drawing parallels to the culturally, temporally and geographically remote Dorset culture of the eastern Arctic as I have done may give some indication of their rarity. Historically, at least, they are found in the Bering Strait and North Alaskan coast. A few pieces have also been recovered in a prehistoric context from Point Barrow and the Uelen cemetery in Siberia, indicating that these pieces have deep prehistoric antecedents. Ford (1959) illustrates two chipped stone forms which he identifies as effigies or amulets. The first (1959:216, fig. 104F) is a bifacially chipped piece of quartz crystal. It is approximately 2.5 cm. long with the proximal end shaped into an equilateral triangle, has a parallel-sided body and a realistically rendered Y-shaped tail. Ford identifies it as either a whale effigy or lancet. It was recovered from Mound A at the Birnirk site (Ford 1959:41) which Stanford (1976:97, 108) places within the Late Birnirk Period (A.D. 700-800). The other chipped stone amulet recovered by Ford is a realistically executed whale effigy about 3.5 cm. long from the Utkiavik site (Ford 1959:201, fig. 101h). Stanford places most of the mounds at Utkiavik within the Late Thule Period or A.D. 1400-1750. (1976:98, 108). A third piece was recovered by Stanford from a test trench in Mound A at Walakpa and dates sometime within the Birnirk Period (A.D. 500-900). This piece (1976-Pl. 6, fig. 0) is listed as an unidentified chert effigy, but the general body conformation, tapered snout, clearly defined flukes and knob-like tail are nearly identical to the whale amulet illustrated on Plate 2:D. Thus, the use of chipped stone amulets in the Point Barrow area has a respectable antiquity, dated at least to A.D. 700-800 and perhaps earlier. Elsewhere in the Bering Strait region, Levin (1964:299) illustrates two chipped stone amulets from a Punuk period grave at the Uelen cemetery on the Chukchi Peninsula. Although both have been possibly identified as fish, they bear a striking resemblance to the whale effigies in this collection. The Punuk period has been generally dated between A.D. 500 and 1000.


  Technologically, these amulets violate a commonly held assumption that the quality of native workmanship declines when European materials are introduced. Both Nelson and Murdoch note that in the late 19th century iron and steel tools were rapidly replacing traditional stone forms in the Bering Strait and North Alaska regions. Chipped stone arrow points and lance and knife blades, however were still produced and used during this transitional period. Although none of the amulets in this collection nor any of the functional blades that I've seen approach the fine ripple flaking of Classic Denbigh (Giddings 1964) or Choris (Larsen 1968), they still exhibit a complete technological control of this difficult medium.


  Unfortunately there is no written documentation describing the production of these amulets. Presumably they were roughed out with hammerstones and then pressure flaked with the antler­ tipped flint flakers such as those illustrated by Murdoch (1892:288). Pressure flaking produces a number of results simultaneously; the stone is thinned as a result of flake removal across the surface, a sharp edge is created when the edge angle is small, and it determines the over-all outline. The first and last factors are the most important for chipped stone amulets in order to create thin, aesthetically pleasing forms of the desired shape. In most cases, then, flakes were removed by pressure flaking until the amulet was reasonably thin and the desired outline was achieved. Grinding and polishing of the surfaces occurred whenever the amulet attained the proper outline but remained too thick in certain areas. Occasionally edges were also ground to attain the desired shape. The two amulets exhibiting suspension holes were drilled from both surfaces, presumably with bow drills and a fine grit.


  The raw materials used in the production of these amulets were probably all derived from North Alaska with the exception of the steatite whale effigy. Chert and jasper are locally available as beach cobbles, while obsidian sources are present in the Brooks Range (Stanford, personal communication 1978). This obsidian was probably obtained from the interior Nuunamiut groups who carried on intense annual trading relations with the coastal Tareumiut throughout the historic period. Presumably, quartz crystals are also available in nearby locales.


  The function of amulets in a variety of social-cultural contexts has been well described in the literature (Lantis 1946; Murdoch 1892; Nelson 1899; Rainey 1947; Spencer 1959) and requires no great elaboration here. Briefly there were a number of different classes of amulets: personal, household, karigi or men's house, shaman's and hunting. Personal amulets could be worn by anyone and were thought to bring success in particular circumstances or to enhance a desired personal or physical quality. These charms and amulets were often carved effigies of humans or animals, but could also be such things as stuffed animal skins, animal teeth, an odd stone and the like. These were either tied directly to clothing or sewn into leather pouches and then attached. These amulets had greater power when received from an older relative or a shaman; often food taboos and songs were associated with the transference of an amulet. Household charms were not personal property, but belonged to the house itself. These were either placed over the entrance tunnel in order to bring luck and to ward off illness or they were hung next to the lamp in order to insure a smooth­ running family life. Shamans also wore powerful amulets on their clothing and utilized them in curing ceremonies (Spencer 1959:282-286). Special amulets were associated with the men's house or karigi and were often intimately associated with ceremonies or rituals concerned with sea mammal hunting.


  At Point Barrow a successful spring whale hunt was particularly crucial for the well-being of the entire village. Understandably, amulets played a key role in these activities, since amulets attracted the whales to the hunters and appeased these animals such that they would allow themselves to be harpooned. Whaling captains, harpooners and crew members each had their own amulets which were usually placed in a whale ­ shaped box under the gunwhale of the umiak. Other amulets were often hung from the beaded headbands of the harpooner and whaling captain. Spencer (1959:329) notes these were figures of whales cut in ivory or stone. The amulets in this collection could have functioned in any of these contexts. Some may have been personal amulets designed to aid hunters in a variety of subsistence pursuits. Others, such as the bear amulets, may have been used by shamans in curing rituals. However, the majority appear to have been used in the whale hunts either suspended from head­ bands or placed in special amulet boxes.


  The Point Barrow Inuit still lived in a world dominated by animistic spirits as recently as the turn of the century. Each individual animal, in addition to inanimate objects, had an inner spiritual essence, which could be manipulated for the well-being of the Inuit. These spirits were propitiated and influenced by ceremonial and ritual activity, the strict adherence to various taboos, the singing of magical songs and the use of powerful amulets. If these activities were properly performed the Inuit believed that diseases would be cured, food would be plentiful, harmonious relations would prevail within the family and the village. As such, amulets played a key role in the maintenance of Inuit society and culture.




High Grade Quartz Whale Amulet



Ford, James. A.

  1959 Eskimo prehistory in the vicinity of Point Barrow, Alaska.

  Anthropological Papers of  the American Museum of Natural History, 47(1):1-272.

Giddings, J. Lewis

  1964 The archaeology of Cape Denbigh.

  Brown University Press, Providence.

Harp, Elmer, Jr.

  1969 Late Dorset Eskimo art from Newfoundland. 1970 Folk, 11-12:109-124.

Lantis, Margaret

  1946 The social structure of the Nunivak Eskimo.

  Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. New Series 35(3). Philadephia.

Larsen, Helge

  1968 Trail Creek. Acta Arctica, Ejnar Munksgaard, Copenhagen.

Levin, M.G.

  1964 Fieldwork on the Chukchi Peninsula in 1957.

  Arctic Institute of North America Translation from Russian Sources, No. 5:296-318.

Nelson, Edward W.

  1899 The Eskimo about Bering Strait.

  Eighteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology. Washington, D.C.

Rainey, Froelich

  1947 The whale hunters of Tigara.

  Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, 41(2). New York.

Spencer, Robert F.

  1959 The North Alaskan Eskimo: A study in ecology and society.

  Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin, 171. Washington, D.C

Stanford, Dennis J.

  1976 The Walapa site, Alaska

 Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology, 20. Washington, D.C.

Van Valin, William B.

  1944 Eskimoland speaks. Caldwell, Idaho.

Jordan, R. (1980, March). The University of Pennsylvania Museum Collection of
     Chipped Stone Amulets.
Anthropological Papers of the University of Alaska,
19(2), 33-35. Abstract obtained from Anthropological Papers of the
     University of Alaska

Bryn Mawr College Pennsylvania