Life and Art
of an Ancient Arctic People
This exhibition was shown at the Canadian Museum of Civilization from October 17, 1996 until May 19, 1997.
For three thousand years before the Inuit arrived in Arctic Canada, the region was occupied by a people of remarkable accomplishment. Known to archaeologists as the Palaeo-Eskimos, they developed the techniques that first allowed humans to live successfully in the coldest and bleakest part of the habitable world. They also produced a legacy of carving that is unique, delightful and intriguing. Living beyond the range of known human adaptations, this ancient society created objects of such enduring beauty that they give pleasure to peoples as alien as ourselves.
The collections of the Canadian Museum of Civilization include several hundred carvings excavated from Palaeo-Eskimo sites. They represent one of the world's great collections of prehistoric art and provide fascinating insight into an ancient religion and worldview. This exhibit presents Palaeo-Eskimo art against the background of a way of life that was uniquely adapted to the remarkable environment of Arctic North America. The floor plan of the actual exhibit is in the form of a circle. The history and culture of the Palaeo-Eskimos are presented around the outer rim of the circle using videos, reconstructions, photographs and artifacts. The circle is divided into four rooms, the first three of which deal with different aspects of the art and beliefs of the Palaeo-Eskimos. The last room is a gallery, in which many of the finest carvings in the collection of the Canadian Museum of Civilization are displayed. This online version of the exhibit provides information that could not be included in the exhibit text due to space limitations.
The Rock Outcrop
The entrance to the exhibit is marked by a large reproduction of a rock outcrop, into which dozens of faces have been carved. Three petroglyph sites like this one are found on small islands in Hudson Strait, off the northern coast of Quebec. The carving was done by Palaeo-Eskimos, probably about 1,000 years ago. We don't know what the faces signify, or even if they represent humans or human-like spirits; the lines radiating from some of the faces may indicate supernatural power. The fact that these petroglyph sites are so rare suggests that they mark places of spiritual significance.
The Tyara Maskette
The first artifact shown in the exhibit is one of the most celebrated examples of Palaeo-Eskimo art. This tiny ivory mask was excavated from the Tyara site, a 2,000-year-old village on the south shore of Hudson Strait. Similar faces can be seen in the petroglyphs found on the nearby islands. This distinctive mask has a tapered oval shape, while the upper margin of the forehead is concave and rises to a point at either end, suggestive of "ears". These ears, combined with the narrowly tapered lower face, give a vaguely animal-like quality to an image that is essentially and serenely human. The relationship between humans and animals is a recurring motif in Palaeo-Eskimo art, and was obviously an important aspect of their religious beliefs.