Harpoon Head

Date: 4th–5th century

Geography: United States, Alaska

Culture: Old Bering Sea

Medium: Ivory (walrus)

Dimensions: L. 5 15/16 in. (15.1 cm)

Classification: Bone/Ivory-Implements

Credit Line: Rogers Fund, 1981

Accession Number: 1981.358.1


Walrus ivory was made into objects of utilitarian function and/or personal finery by the peoples living in the arctic cold of the Bering Strait. Few of these well-conceived, intimately scaled objects were as utilitarian in purpose as the harpoon heads that were the foremost element of toggling harpoons. An Alaskan favorite, such harpoons were used to hunt sea mammals, which not only constituted the basis of local subsistence but provided the very material from which the harpoon parts were fabricated. Harpoons had to be beautifully made in order to attract the spirits of their prey—necessary for a successful hunt—and they were best ornamented with images that enhanced the hunter's power. Depictions of long-beaked, elegantly rendered predatory birds often appear on the harpoon heads. These images were part of an overall philosophy that mandated respect for the hunted by the refinement and elaboration of both the equipment and clothing used for the hunt. The ivory acquired its deep rich browns and tans through burial in the permafrost.