How Are We to Imagine Them?: Shamanism, Structuralism and the Zoomorphic Series in Dorset Carving

By MacRae, Ian J. | Anthropologica, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

How Are We to Imagine Them?: Shamanism, Structuralism and the Zoomorphic Series in Dorset Carving


MacRae, Ian J., Anthropologica


Abstract: Dorset people, particularly the Late Dorset, c. AD 700-1300, have produced an art of significant quality, potency, and power. Dorset art constitutes one of the premiere museum collections in Canada, in any mode, genre or form. This paper examines the widely accepted view of Dorset carving as inextricably bound with shamanistic practice. Focusing on "naturalistic miniatures," works of zoomorphic realism, it suggests these works may have been vernacular objects, common and part of everyday life, giving expression to the more mundane experiences of people in the past. This makes them no less emblematic of Dorset social mores, habits, customs, and relations.

Keywords: Dorset, archaeological art, shamanism, naturalism, realism

Résumé : Les populations dorsétiennes, et en particulier les Dorsétiens tardifs, entre 700 et 1300 apr. J.-C, ont produit un art significatif au plan de la qualité, du pouvoir et de la puissance. L'art dorsétien constitue une des principales collections muséologiques au Canada, dans tous les genres, formes ou modes. Cet article examine l'opinion largement acceptée qui veut que l'art dorsétien soit inextricablement lié aux pratiques chamaniques. En s'intéressent particulièrement aux « miniatures naturalistes », des objets au zoomorphisme réaliste, l'article suggère que ces artefacts pourraient avoir été des objets vernaculaires, courants et intégrés à la vie quotidienne, ce qui exprimerait une dimension plus terre-à-terre de l'expérience des populations passées. Cela n'enlève rien à leur caractère emblématique des moeurs, habitudes, coutumes et relations sociales des Dorsétiens.

Mots-clés : Dorsétiens, art archéologique, chamanisme, naturalisme, réalisme

Silent Echoes of Culture

More than 40 years have passed since William E. Taylor and George Swinton's twinned, seminal articles on Dorset carving, published in The Beaver in 1967. Taylor and Swinton engaged in a lively debate for the period of a year before committing their thoughts, impressions and analyses of Dorset art objects to paper. Their combined program, under the shared title "Prehistoric Dorset Art," continues to form the basis of our current understanding of the tradition. A painter and professor of art at the University of Manitoba, Swinton adopted an artist and art historian's perspective, and studied the artifacts "as art, as experience, as expression" (Taylor 1967:32). In championing "The Magico-Religious Basis" of Dorset art, Swinton (1967:39) stated quite clearly: "I am reasonably convinced that most, if not all, Dorset art is not only magical, but probably highly specialized (and 'professional') shaman's art." He further developed his thesis that only a highly skilled artisanal class of "shaman-artists," or "artist-shamans" - art workers well-versed in the forms and contents of Dorset traditions, and "who applied them in a carefully handed down traditional manner" - could have been responsible for the production of a corpus of such coherency, consistency, "intensity and power" (1967:39). Speaking for Taylor as well, Swinton wrote:

we should also like to suggest that the highly developed and exquisitely shaped objects are not the work of occasional carvers, far less mere whittlings, but the carefully planned and considered work of specialists (either the shamans or their helpers) ... It is by no means unreasonable to conceive of a Dorset artist-shaman (or shaman-artist) as the main producer of such art. [1967:39]

Taylor, then Director of the Human History Branch at the Canadian National Museum, played a crucial role in defining the concept of a Dorset culture in Canada (1959; 1962; 1965; 1968). In "Silent Echoes of Culture," his contribution to the dialogue, he adopted a more rational, quantitative approach, as his training and experience would suggest. Taylor began by reviewing current understanding of the timelines and trajectories of Palaeo-Eskimo occupations in Arctic North America, the first peoples to live in northern Canada, Labrador and Greenland. …

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