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


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. They appear in the archaeological record around 4000 BI> having moved eastward almost certainly from the Bering Sea region of Alaska, and before this Siberia. They expressed a range of regional cultural variants of the Arctic Small Tool tradition (ASTt) - the Denbigh Flint Complex of coastal Alaska, the Independence I and II peoples of High Arctic Canada and Greenland, the Saqqaq occupation of West Greenland, the Pre-Dorset of central and eastern Arctic Canada, and the Groswater Dorset of Labrador. Around 1000-500 BC the occupational record in Arctic Canada thins, and a new archaeological tradition - that of the Dorset - appears to emerge. It is generally believed that the Dorset developed in sitii in the Canadian Arctic from Pre-Dorset traditions, possibly with elements of Alaskan cultures moving in from the west. These people had small stone lamps to burn sea mammal oil, few if any dogs, no drill or bow and arrow, and probably hauled small sleds across the frozen sea ice by hand. Generally accepted dates for the Dorset occupation in Canada are BC 800-AD 1000/1500. The Dorset can be seen as a successful adaptation that spanned some two thousand years in Arctic Canada, and regional variations of the culture have been identified. By means of comparison, European settler contact with these territories appears decidedly thin, and even the Thule Inuit are relative newcomers.

Taylor proceeded to quantify the "raw data" he and Swinton had under consideration: 56 objects from the National Museum of Canada, 33 on loan from the Oblate (now Eskimo) Museum in Churchill, Manitoba, a number of photographs from archaeologists Harp, Maxwell and Meldgaard, as well as illustrations from the literature (Collins, Holtved, Mathiasson) - for a total of 125 objects, 89 in hand. …

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