Posted by: Brian | April 9, 2009

Ivory Buckle – a work in progress?

Ivory 'medallion'

Aniakchak's Ivory 'medallion'

One of our more interesting finds from Aniakchak is this small,  oval-shaped, ivory carving. We found it while digging in the thick midden deposits along the site’s margin. ‘Why was it thrown away?’ is an obvious question given its apparent intentional discard in a refuse deposit. I don’t even have a glimmer of an answer to this ‘why’ question.

‘What is this thing?’ is a question however, I’ve begun to answer. My first thought was that the object was some sort of plaque or medallion with relief carving on it’s surface that looks vaguely anthropomorphic – like a stick figure with arms. I also think it looks like a stylized bear – which led me to speculate fancifully in my field notes that it was a shaman’s bear talisman.

Ivory medallion - macro view showing tool marks

Ivory medallion - macro view showing tool marks

Once we brought the object to the lab and looked at it more carefully we were able to determine that it appears to be unfinished. We noted tool marks, especially around the figure’s ‘legs’. It seems that the carver had started to work in this area – perhaps intending to mirror the ‘upper’ pattern. The coarseness of the tool marks in this area, compared to the smooth upper part and polished reverse side, makes me pretty confident that the object is a work in progress. Assuming I’m correct in this hypothesis, then the question of why the artist tossed this carving away unfinished becomes even more perplexing. The object isn’t broken and there is no indication of a material flaw that would justify abandoning this carving. So the question of ‘discard’ remains a mystery.

I have another idea, though, regarding the ‘what is this thing?’ question. As a medallion, it is a unique, or at least rare, object amongst north Pacific/southern Bering Sea ivory carving traditions. No other archaeological site from the region has produced a similar oval shaped ivory with relief carving to my knowledge. The idea that the carving is unfinished, however, has led me to consider that the finished piece was intended to have a significantly different look.

Ivory carving from Amchitka Island (UA72-055-2458). Image from Alaska's Digital Archives.

Ivory carving from Amchitka Island (UA72-055-2458). Image from Alaska's Digital Archives.

Sites in the Aleutian Islands and the Kodiak Archipelago have produced ‘open work carvings’ that could be finished versions of the Aniakchak artifact (Heizer 1956, McCartney 1967). McCartney, in his study of Aleutian bone and ivory artifacts, calls these objects ‘ivory buckles’ which he notes is a descriptive rather than functional name. Both McCartney and Heizer assume these buckles served as adornment, but offer no further speculation as to what they adorned – clothing, hats, bags – etc.

The Aniakchak carving looks similar, but not identical, to the published

Aniakchak's medallion - reverse side

Aniakchak's medallion - reverse side

photographs of ivory buckles. It’s the right size (46.5 mm long, 37.6 mm wide, 7.4-4.9 mm thick) and shape, but a slightly different design. What I’d really like to see is the backside of the ivory buckles to determine whether they have detailed finishes on both sides or just the side shown in the photographs. The Aniakchak specimen has a nicely polished reverse side that gives the object a finished appearance.

So to summarize – Aniakchak’s ivory ‘medallion’ was recovered from a refuse deposit and appears to be intact, but unfinished. The carver may have intended to make it into an open work carving like the ivory ‘buckles’ found in the Aleutian Islands and the Kodiak Archipelago. If my interpretations of this artifact are correct, then we have a very interesting piece. First, the ‘medallion as buckle’ indicates a connection between the ivory carving traditions of Aniakchak, the Aleutian tradition and the Kachemak tradition of Kodiak – a region spanning some 2100 km (1300 miles). I have already made a similar claim regarding the ivory and bone faces found at Aniakchak. The Aniakchak medallion is of further interest because of its unfinished state. It provides clues to the ivory carving techniques. The open work carving, assuming this was the Aniakchak artisan’s intended outcome, was accomplished without the use of a drill. Instead the open work is created by carving through the piece from one side, not both sides. These are admittedly minor technical details, but archaeologists know very little about ancient ivory carving methods, especially compared to what we know about stone tool production.

I could of course be wrong about my interpretations. If I’m wrong about the ‘open work carving hypothesis’, then the Aniakchak ivory medallion is an unusual, maybe even unique, artifact. Unfortunately, if I’m wrong, then I’m back to my original story of the ‘shaman’s bear’ – an interesting story perhaps, but a story that should never leave the pages of my field journal.


Heizer, Robert F. 1956. Archaeology of the Uyak Site, Kodiak Island, Alaska. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

McCartney, Allen P. 1967. An analysis of the bone industry from Amaknak Island, Alaska. Thesis (M.A.)–University of Wisconsin, 1967.



  1. Interesting artifact Brian.

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