Dorset Masks

CMC PCD 94-686-007
CMC PCD 94-686-008

Masks, A.D. 500-1000; excavated by Guy Mary-Rousselière at the Button Point site on the south coast of Bylot Island, Northwest Territories; carved driftwood, red ochre; (top) 18 x 14.3 x 3.2 cm., (bottom) 18.7 x 13.3 x 3 cm.

The permanently frozen soil of the Arctic acts as a gigantic vault, preserving the belongings of people who lived there thousands of years ago. Among its greatest treasures are the carvings in wood and ivory made by the Dorset people, who occupied the area before the coming of the Inuit.

CMC PfFm-1:1773

The people of the Dorset culture were the descendants of Siberian immigrants, who were the first occupants of arctic North America. They lived in arctic Canada for over three millenia, developing a unique way of life in apparent isolation from other human groups. Among their accomplishments was the development of an artistic tradition that is one of the finest known among hunting peoples.

CMC PfFm-1:1728

The two life-sized masks were carved from driftwood and painted; they originally had fur moustaches and eyebrows attached with pegs. Shamans probably wore the masks in rituals for curing the sick, controlling the weather, or influencing the hunt.

The Dorset people disappeared about five hundred years ago, probably at the hands of the invading Inuit. Our only knowledge of them comes from the frozen remains of their camps and the carvings that allow us a rare glimpse into the artistic and spiritual life of an extinct people.