Unique Inuit artifact collection from 2000 - 8000 BP.

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The Suptencollection


Introduction

A few decades ago a rare and very large collection of artifacts is exhumed on the peninsula of Tschukotka (also called Chukotski or Chukchi), in the extreme northeast of Siberia and directly located on the Bering Strait.

Satellite photo of the Bering Strait.

In the delta of the Supten River (also called Subeten) at a depth of 0 to 4 metres a prehistoric settlement is uncovered. The site is 12 km from Tschegetun and 25 km from Inschuon (see map 1 and 2).



 Map 1 Detailed staff map US defence.

For a long time the peninsula is the home of the traditional Chukchi and some other Eskimo peoples such as the Yupiks and Sireniki. There is a presumption that the culture or cultures whose artifacts, in the course of time, are supplanted by the Chukchi or may have mixed among each other.


Map 2 Location of the Site

The area is one of the most inhospitable places in the world and it is since thousands of years inhabited by Inuit cultures who, in the icy cold and harsh conditions, have been able to survive. The habitat of the Inuit is one of twilight and darkness. The long polar night make a very special way of life necessary and is a striking example of the great adaptability of mankind to an extremely difficult and hostile natural environment.
 
At the excavations about 950 objects were found from at least five cultural layers, most of which are in good to excellent condition. The finds, made from all kinds of materials, are conserved excellently in the permafrost soil.
 
The large collection of artifacts from the life of the pole hunters give a glimpse into the living conditions of between 2000-8000 years ago.
The Inuit culture is somewhat similar to that in Alaska, on the other side of the Bering Strait, about which relatively much more is known.
 
The artifacts are made of all sorts of material originated from walrus, polar bear, whale, driftwood, Slate, Flint, wolf, seal, antlers. The collection includes artifacts, jewelry, tools, objects used in rituals and hunting objects. All of these artfully edited and decorated.
 
Objects were often decorated for aesthetic reasons, but also with clear magical intentions, for example to promote the hunt. The objects mostly carved from ivory always had a function: a beautifully decorated harpoon point was not only gracefully, but also deadly. In addition, the Inuit believed that animals were more likely to be killed by aesthetic responsible weapons.
 
The hunt for large marine animals and especially on seals, walruses and whales, is the most characteristic element of this Inuit culture. These animals after all provided them with food, hides for clothing, equipment for all kinds of utensils and cod-liver oil for heating and lighting.

What makes this collection so special
 
The collection contains a large amount of objects for diverse use and made from different materials. It's impractical to address all the objects from the collection. Below an impression of what is present:
 
Baleen, coming from the mouth of the whale, was of great importance to the Inuit.
The material was used for many purposes such as fishing lines and for making baskets. Baleen is tough, lightweight and flexible. Its fibers run parallel, which prevents entanglement. Wires or plates of baleen which are cooked for a long time are softened and can be cut into strips or bent into certain forms.
Examples of some applications: a spool with a (fishing) line, used for the purpose of a repair, a thread, a toothpick or used to make connections.
A special application of baleen is it being part of the fishing net.
 
The main raw material for many objects and tools are the walrus tusks. A lot of the artifacts are made from this tusks; from the toughest axes to the smallest and finest edited objects.
Within the Inuit culture the engraving and editing of tusks and other materials was done at a very high level. Each article is a true work of art. And to think that the Inuit did these engravings during the long polar nights, often only using the light of oil lamps. During winter there was enough time to do these kind of precise and time-consuming jobs. Moreover, many of the tools and hunting objects were also made in winter.
 
Much of the materials used, have been situated in the ground for thousands of years and are known as "old ivory". By prolonged exposure to the ice, water and minerals, that penetrated into the grounds, the color of the ivory changed from pale yellow into dark brown and black.
 
Two links skilfully carved from the tooth of a polar bear.
 
Many of the objects carved from walrus tusks were made with a magical or ritual purpose.
An example is a female figure with on her back the head of a whale. The handle of an axe with which, on ritual way, a portion of the proceeds from the hunt was divided among the families in the clan.
 
Often also the animal figures, such as the seal, taken on the hunt for that specific animal. This to appease the beast. The better the object the easier the animal would be caught.
 
A flat disk from tusk, on which an image and/or characters are scratched.
 
No trees or large shrubs grew on the permafrost tundra of Northeast Siberia. Everything made of wood, is washed up from elsewhere.
A large Bowl is made from the root of a tree; whose basic form was already present.
Further four handles of stroker tools. In the slot on the top a piece of tusk was attached with the aid of a leather belt. One of them is a primitive version, made from the root of a shrub or tree.
 
The mammoth molar shows traces of the use as a tool.
 
From the piece ivory needles are cut.
 
Tools made of various types of stone are among the oldest finds.
Hatchets, knives, scrapers, drills, arrow-and spear-points.
 
The food of the Inuit was monotonous and skimpy. The Inuit of Northeast Siberia mainly ate meat of walrus, seal and sometimes whale or polar bear. Also birds were on the menu. All this complemented by edible berries in the summer.
The collection also contains half a dozen so called women knives. These were used to eat, cut meat and to scrape skins.
Three coasters, made from the side of the vertebra of a whale.
Further, among other things, three wooden bowls, three bowls, (part of) a ladle, a fragment of a scale. A number of spoons, one of which was used to scrape the grease of the inside of an animals skin.
There is also a complete set to make fire: a holder, an ivory plate, a bone with a rough bottom which between the holder and the ivory plate could turn around, an arc where between the ends a strip of leather was tied and wound up subsequently once or twice around the bone. By moving the arc, as a kind of violin stick, back and forth, the bone revolved around it, whereby heat was created through friction.
 
A superb collection of harpoon, arrow and spearheads which covers a period of thousands of years. From simple and primitive to technical marvels, often beautifully crafted and extremely effective. The artifacts are made of slate, flint, wood, walrus ivory, baleen, reindeer antler and bone. A Hunter often had a preference for the way of editing and decorating of the material. One could often recognize the maker through the execution of the hunting gear. The type of point that was used was depended on the animal that was hunted.
 
In addition to the usual hunt for bears, whale, walrus and seal they also hunted birds. A usual method was throwing with the "bola". A handle to a line with at the end of the line, at the end of each side line are side lines with a piece of ivory. The bola was quickly hurled round and then thrown into a flock of birds. With a bit of luck, the flying pieces of ivory hit one or more birds. Both a handle as well as a six "bullets" are present. Another way was throwing with an object similar to a kind of Boomerang.
 
A number of wooden "floaters" for fishing nets to remain to the surface.
 
A number of pieces of ivory which served as "sinking" of a fishing net, some of which previously have served as a tool e.g. an axe.
 
Men's knives, women’s knives, arrowheads and suchlike made of polished slate.
 
Two big bats, made from the inner bone of a walruses’ penis.
 
Part of a suit of armour or habergeon of bone.
 
Snow glasses, against blinding by snow and ice, also made of bone.
 
Holders of bone and ivory used as handle of a knife, drill or other tool.
 
A collection of teeth of prey animals including walrus, bear and wolf, several of which have been edited into pendant or have other functions, e.g. part of a bola.
A complete and unprocessed tusk of a walrus of approximately 40 cm length.
 
Top pieces are the human figures carved from walrus tusk, a seal as pendant, stylized human figures, phallic symbols, buttons for clothing and a large number of extremely detailed and artfully decorated objects.
 
Certainly the most sensational and startling pieces are two wooden human figures. One is without a doubt a mother figure, of about 8000 years old and 21 cm high. The other is a doll of 62 cm high of which the arms could move. The age of this doll is estimated to be around 5000 years old.
These (and all) wooden artifacts have been well preserved in the permafrost and immediately after the excavation discomposed of moisture by means of freeze-drying.
 
There is a special artefact that deserves further radiological studies .
It consists of a wrap of skin, held together by means of a band of birch bark wound around it. Research has shown that this may be a mummified rodent. The x-ray pictures made at a dentist point in that direction.
 
The usage or meaning of a number of artifacts is not (yet) known (totally).
Despite that many objects since immemorial have remained unchanged, it is nevertheless hard to figure out the meaning of some of them. By comparing it to other, similar cultures from other Arctic parts of Siberia, Alaska and Northern Canada it may be possible to identify a use.

Scientific value of the collection
 
There is still little known about the archaeology of Northeast Asia, despite long excavation campaigns by Russian archaeologists over the last years. The area is difficult to access and only well-equipped expeditions are able to do research in such an environment. In the past, little archaeological research has been done because such cultures were not important enough to spent time and attention to. Only in recent years, the Russians are going to understand that cultures in the Middle, North and North-East of Siberia are part of their cultural heritage and more research is necessary. Haste is needed because already cultures and languages have become extinct in recent history. In addition, this area is of vital importance, because it was the place from where the first settlement in America took place via the Bering Strait. By the Arctic environment of ancient Beringia people for the first time, traversed from the Old to the new world.
 
At the moment, expeditions by National Geographic, are organized (during the 6 to 8-week summer, and that only in good weather) to potential deposits of the Paleo-Eskimos in Alaska in the period when it is possible. With the use of GPS and after a preparation of a several years and the examination of many satellite recordings, places where the chance of finding settlements and/or artifacts are pinpointed. This, because it is expected that by the melting of the ice and the thawing of the permafrost, organic material such as wood, ivory, bone, et cetera are likely to be lost forever. The places concerned are located on the outskirts of the retreating ice fields, which are made visible by means of comparison of photos. To what extent such expeditions also take place in Russia is not known at the time. Also there will be much lost if no action is taken.
Study and extensive research of the Suptencollection will most certainly contribute to more knowledge about the ancient cultures in this part of Siberia.
The size, composition and age of the collection is such that they can be ranked to one of the most valuable collections privately held. According to reliable sources there is, at least in Netherlands, but presumably also in the whole of Europe, no second collection to find. Also in looking at Inuit material in museums these are often only recent finds (19th, 20th  century) and then only originated from Alaska, Canada and Greenland in particular.
Actually, only in specific museums in the United States and Russia prehistoric finds are to be found there from the mentioned area.
 
In addition to the unique character of the collection, many more questions emerge:
 
Which technological and cultural practices are found in North-East of Siberia and Alaska and has an exchange taken place between the cultures.
 
What techniques were used when editing the materials, when laying knots, making connections and which tool is used on that.
 
Is the artefact with the pinhole access unique for that time?
 
What is the correct age of the artifacts?
A quantity of material is not preserved to trace dates.
 
It is suspected that the artifacts have not belonged to nomadic people, given the many objects of walrus ivory, which implied a life with marine mammals. The nomadic people lived with and of the reindeer herds.
 
On one artefact, research has shown that there might be a mummified rodent in it. X-rays are at least pointing in that direction. If the conclusion is correct, then that will be sensational . Further research is certainly needed.
 
Around 8000 years ago, the northern areas, which bordered the coasts of both Eurasia and North America, as well as the Islands further to the North, were mostly as they are today. Equal to that people should have done similar things in both the old and the new world, even though we miss the archaeological knowledge of the old World in order to be able to reconstruct their way of life. The best evidence that shows a link with the ancient inhabitants of Siberia, comes from the Arctic regions of Canada and Greenland, where they are known among archaeologists as Paleo-Eskimos.
The adjustments that the Paleo-Eskimos made possible to penetrate the Arctic regions, were almost certainly developed in Northern Siberia, even though there are, again, little archaeological sites, related to these people, known from this area.
Also the areas in Alaska have little evidence of early Paleo-Eskimo habitation, even though Alaska is on the route that Paleo-Eskimos followed from Siberia to Northern Canada.
We do know that approximately 4000 years ago, people with a culture affiliated to that of the first Paleo-Eskimos, have inhabited the Arctic coast of Siberia and crossed the sea to Wrangel Island to inhabit an island more than 60 miles north of the Siberian mainland.
 
Important to note is that the entire collection is conserved by the late Anton Verhagen, a curator which was connected to the ROB and a famous University. The material is, where necessary, treated against mold, rot, insects et cetera.
 
The late Ad Wouters, one of the best and most famous "amateur"-archaeologists from the Netherlands once said that this collection is one of the most beautiful things he has ever seen.


The collection is put away in 49 boxes with 1 or 2 layers.