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Ancient Faces

ImagePeople around the world use faces in artwork to record events, display emotion, express identity, share beliefs and celebrate the human form.  Kodiak’s ancient artists were no different.  Alutiiqs carved faces in wood, bone, ivory, and stone.  Archaeological collections from the past 2,000 years are rich with these pictures.  Look closely and you will see artistic customs, social traditions, and even the spiritual beliefs of Alutiiq ancestors.


Photo: Ivory Fastner, Koniag Inc. Collection,
Karluk One Site


Through out the Alutiiq world, craftsmen fashioned ingenious tools from beach cobbles and leaves of slate.  They molded these same common materials into works of art.  By pecking – using one stone to shape another – artists transformed cobbles into sculptures.  And with the aid of a sharp rock they drew detailed pictures of people on soft pieces of slate.  Each work tells a story.

The Spirit of the Lamp

Some of the oldest human faces in Alutiiq artwork occur on stone oil lamps up to 2,000 years old.  Most decorated lamps show geometric designs or sea mammals, but a few display realistic human faces. These important sources of light and heat were probably family heirlooms, and each was thought to hold a spirit.  Carved faces may represent an ancestor, or perhaps the human-like spirit inside each lamp

Decorated Stone Lamp, Tonalite, Gift of Roy Madsen


Stone Figure


This stone figure shows a common convention in Alutiiq art.  Craftsmen often used a V- shape to depict a nose and brow.  Some people believe this shape resembles a whale’s tale and reflects the ties between Alutiiq people and the sea mammals essential to life on Kodiak.


Stone Figurine from Chirikof Island, USF&WS Collection








Human faces also occur in Kodiak petroglyphs, the ancient artwork pecked into shoreline boulders.  At Cape Alitak, there are more than 700 of these images – including many distinct faces.  Clusters of these faces may be characters from family stories, drawn to show ties between the people and who harvested resource in the surrounding area.  Or, they may be ritual art, create during spiritual preparations for whale hunting.

Photo: Cape Alitak Petroglyph Group

Pictures in Slate

About 700 years ago, Alutiiqs began to draw detailed pictures of people on small pieces of slate.  The faces in these pictures preserve amazing details about people’s jewelry and clothing.  Many faces are adorned with labrets, beads, necklaces, earrings, and headdresses, and some of wear parkas.   Compare the pictures from different regions and you can see different styles of dress.  These differences may reflect the presence of different social groups. 
















Alutiiq artists also brought human faces to life in wood, bone, and ivory carvings.  Organic materials were more pliant than stone, allowing craftsmen to shape both realistic and stylized face with great detail.  Some wooden objects were painted, adding human images to common objects, or subtle details to carved faces. Each work tells a story.


Sometimes Alutiiq faces have lines emanating from the eyes – stripes of paint that form rays or beams.  These lines may indicate exceptional sight.  Lam Sua, the Alutiiq spirit of all things, was thought to see and hear everything.  This small painting may depict Lam Sua seeing through the universe.

Painted Image of Llam Sua, the Alutiiq supreme being.


The Spirit Within


Everything in the Alutiiq universe is alive, with a human-like consciousness.  From the mountains, to animals and everyday objects, all things are aware human actions and require respectful treatment.  Wastefulness, carelessness and poor repair can cause bad luck and suffering for humans.  Faces carved on household objects may have reminded people of their place in the world and the need for considerate behavior.

Gaming disk, Koniag Inc. Collection, Karluk One Site, courtesy Ronnie Lind







Alutiiqs carvers made two types of dolls.  Children’s toys had standard faces with detailed bodies and legs.  These dolls were spring playthings that symbolized the rebirth of the year and the reincarnation of recently passed souls.  In contrast, shamans' dolls had unique faces but simple bodies.  Elders recall that shamans carved these dolls to look like people they wished to help or harm.

A child's doll, Koniag Inc. Collection, Karluk One Site






Hunting Magic




A prized possession of every Alutiiq hunter was his decorated hunting visor.  Ivory carvings were one of the hat’s embellishments and sometimes included a seated human figure.   This figure, which represented the hunter’s spirit protector, had a large head and prominent ears.

Ivory Figurine, Olsen Collection, Anton Larsen Bay








Alutiiq carvers created unique masks, depicting stylized faces to tell family stories and represent the spirits that guided life on earth.  Dancers wore large masks for performances. Small masks were tied to festival gear, like drums.  Masks with pointed heads represented evil spirits.

 Miniature masks, Koniag, Inc. Collection, Karluk One site






Star Man




Alutiiq legend tells of a girl who married a star, a man who lived in the sky.  The girl traveled to his home in a basket and found that he had moss on his head, twigs for hair, and one bright eye in the middle of his forehead.  Is this face-shaped piece of whalebone a carving of the star man?

Star Man Carving, Whalebone, USF&WS Collection, Aliulik Peninsula, Courtesy Brad & Kay Underwood







This whalebone carving from an archaeological site looks unlike any other Alutiiq depiction of the human face.  Is it a portrait of a fur trader or perhaps a carving done by a European colonist?

Whalebone Sculpture, Carlson Collection, Larsen Bay