Ancient Eskimo Sanctuary Discovered

Whalebone Alley: the Antiquities of the Seniavin Strait Islands deals with the description and analysis of several historical relies in this northernmost corner of the Pacific immediately south of the Bering Strait, but mostly with a unique monument of a forgotten sea-mammal hunting civilization constructed of bowhead whale mandibles and skulls.

This particular monument, called "Whalebone Alley," was discovered by the authors in the summer of 1976 in Siqlluq Bay on the northern shore of Yttygran Island. Detailed investigations conducted that year, 1977, and 1979 determined that the monument is composed of the following structural elements:

  1. A row of bowhead skulls extends along the edge of the grass-covered beach, which raises about .5m over the pebble beach. The total length of the row is about 300 meters. It is composed of 15 clearly distinguished units called "skull groups." It is obvious that they were placed in a strict geometrical order and were inserted into the ground by the nasal parts, while their occipital parts were raised vertically to a height about 1.5m. Altogether about 60 bowhead whale skulls were found in Whalebone Alley, mostly in groups of two to four.
  2. Poles made of whale mandibles are the most noticeable form of construction. Many of them at present are broken, some still lying on the ground, but their bases remaining as stubs indicate their original position. Altogether 34 mandible poles were found in Whalebone Alley, with 14 still erect. Both skulls and poles wear marks of cutting and drilling. Most probably the whales who provided these bones had been hunted not in Siqlluq, but in other places, because other bones found in abundance at old butchering grounds like ribs, vertebrae, and the like are very scarce around Whalebone Alley. The distribution of the poles is much less regular than the and they stand single, in and in rather amorphous skulls, pairs, clusters of several poles.
  3. Stone structures are abundant on the slope of the hill south of Whalebone Alley, shaped as a talus, and along the hillfoot. Here among groups of poles four ring structures are visible, about 1.5-2m in diameter and made of huge stones. Almost exactly in the center of the monument there is an even place in the form of an amphitheater rimmed by very large stones in a semicircle of 4-5m in diameter. Remains of a big fireplace were found with a lot of seal and walrus bone ashes. On the talus itself there are about 120 stone meat caches 1-1.5m in diameter, with considerable remains of mummified meat on the bottom of them under a grass cover. A well-paved path or "dromos" goes up the slope. It is Im broad and about 50m long. The lower part of the dromos is straight, while the upper part curves around a large structure of huge stones, about 4-4.5m in diameter, which the authors call "The Shrine." Interviews with local informants produced very little information about the history of Whalebone Alley and adjacent territories. All but the tiniest scraps of evidence are examined and analyzed in this report, along with general data on the whale hunting, worship, and related festivals and rituals.

Most probably, Whalebone Alley was specifically designed as the site for such rituals, even though all the literature of ethnography fails to reconstruct the rituals once held there. On the whole, Whalebone Alley looks like an enormously large construction (for Arctic conditions) with a complicated and highly symmetrical composition. A monument of this kind could not be built in an unplanned, spontaneous and gradual way, but had to be constructed according to a single plan, consuming great amounts of labor. In this respect it can be compared to the largest burial mounds of the Eurasian steppes or to the megalithic complexes of Southeast Asia or Western Europe. In its scale it is unique for the whole Arctic region.

Radiocarbon dating of the bones from Whalebone Alley placed in the 17th century. Allowing for contamination by ground water, however, the authors prefer to date the monument in the Final Punuk period, that is from the 13th to the 14th centuries.

They conjecture that the rituals which were conducted at this huge sanctuary were of an esoteric nature. They were possibly carried out once per year or per several years and were accompanied by feasts. There is a probability that the participants were mostly or exclusively adult males from a number of territorial or social groups. The most probable organizational framework for such ceremonial activities might be a secret society of men. Institutions of this kind were known among the Aleuts, the Eskimos of Southeastern Alaska, and the Northwestern Indians.

The authors state that many features of the Old Bering Sea culture, which is ancestral to the Punuk culture, find their closest parallels not among the modern Eskimo, but among the Aleuts and the Indians of the Northwest Coast. There is also considerable archeological evidence that the ancient Asiatic society possessed a much more complicated system of social stratification and organization than is known to have existed among 18th-19th-century Eskimos.

The most natural units forming the reunion gathering at Whalebone Alley could have been umiak crews. The number of crews possible corresponded to the number of skull groups, about 15, which would make a total number of slightly over 100 participants representing a number of villages. The union of these villages might have embraced a rather vast territory, from Cape Chaplin in the south to Mechigmen Bay in the north, taking the form of a secret male society, with its ritual and symbolic center at Whalebone Alley.

The factors responsible for the decay of this complicated social system were most probably connected with the general decline of the Punuk culture, caused by the deterioration of the climatic and ecological environment of the Arctic sea hunting cultures of the 14th and 15th centuries.

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