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This article is about the Ipiutak site. Did you mean the culture?

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Culture(s) Ipiutak
Temporal Period(s) Norton Tradition

Summary Details


The Ipiutak site is the type site for Ipiutak culture, and the largest known Ipiutak settlement (Mason 2014). While the full extent of the site is not known due to coastal erosion (Mason 2004), evidence of approximately 600 house depressions have been documented (Mason 2014). The site also contains an extensive adjoining cemetery featuring elaborate burial customs and evidence of social hierarchy (Mason 1998). Notably, artifacts discovered at Ipiutak indicate a link to Siberia (Morrow and Volkman 1975).

Research History

Location and Site Discovery

Situated in northwestern Alaska, Point Hope is located on a narrow gravel spit over the Chukchi Sea, extending from Lisburne Peninsula and surrounding many lagoons (Mason 2004). The Ipiutak site is located across five beach ridges, approximately 1.5 km away from the modern day community of Point Hope (Mason 2004). The site was initially discovered by archaeologists Froelich Rainey and Louis Giddings in 1939, and subsequently excavated in the summers of 1939 and 1940 by Froelich Rainey and Helge Larsen (Rainey 1941).

Major Finds/Insights


Over 80 of the more than 600 house depressions were excavated, providing insight into Ipiutak architecture (Mason 2014). The houses were typically square or rectangle single family units constructed with driftwood logs for walls and sod for roofs, and contained a central hearth (Mason 2014). The houses at Point Hope were built very closely together, which was originally interpreted as being evidence of a large village occupied by thousands of individuals at a time; however, because several house entrances are obscured by the entrances of others, it is likely that the Ipiutak site is a series of houses constructed over a longer period of time, occupied on average by roughly 175-215 individuals at once (Mason 2014).

Siberian Association

There appears to be a strong link between the Ipiutak site and shamanistic motifs in Siberia, in addition to evidence of similar village life and subsistence patterns between the Ipiutak and the peoples of the Yamal Peninsula in northwestern Siberia (Morrow and Volkman 1975). Featuring a rich artistic expression pointing to ceremonialism being an important aspect of everyday life, the most notable of the approximately 10,000 artifacts recovered from the Ipiutak site are the intricate ivory carvings that are stylistically very similar to iron artifacts discovered in Asia (Morrow and Volkman 1975). These iron counterparts of Ipiutak carvings are associated with shamanism, as they are known to have been attached to Siberian shamans’ clothing (Morrow and Volkman 1975). Also supporting Alaskan-Siberian native communication is a fragment of telluric iron that had been found at the Ipiutak site (Morrow and Volkman 1975).

Division of Labour

Research has been conducted to determine if there existed a division of labour between sexes among the Ipiutak at Point Hope by examining the teeth of many previously excavated individuals (Madimenos 2005). Kashims, or men’s houses, are typically present in both modern day and prehistoric Arctic communities, and evidence of large structures resembling kashims have been discovered at Point Hope as well (Madimenos 2005). However, researchers were surprised to find within them an abundance of tools associated with both males and females together (Madimenos 2005). This anomaly is significant, as Arctic cultures are typically organized by males in charge of hunting, while females would work hides for clothing, the latter of which causes significant deterioration of the teeth over time (Madimenos 2005). The social structure at the Ipiutak site has been established to be in contrast with other Arctic cultures, as a notable difference in tooth wear could not be discerned between sexes (Madimenos 2005).


Based on faunal remains excavated from several Ipiutak house features, the Ipiutak were sea mammal hunters; however, unlike contemporary cultures in the region at the time, they were not whalers (Larsen and Rainey 1946). The Ipiutak were expert seal hunters, making use of the hair and bearded seals that were available to them almost all year around, as well as walrus which could be expected annually in the warmer months (Larsen and Rainey 1946). Seal species are found to have dominated the diet, followed by walrus and caribou (Larsen and Rainey 1946). Small land mammals, fish, and birds are least represented, but no doubt subsidized the diet (Larsen and Rainey 1946). It is possible that birds were more important than represented in the remains, but their small bones may have disintegrated or were consumed by predators (Larsen and Rainey 1946).


As some skeletal remains at Ipiutak indicate trauma, the inhabitants having been involved in violent conflict has long been assumed by archaeologists (Pratt and Mason 2012). Arrows have been found embedded in several skeletons at the cemetery (Bandi 1969), and a high frequency of projectile points compared to other weapon types recorded at the site is also indicative of conflict, as the Ipiutak were mainly sea mammal hunters (Pratt and Mason 2012). Body armour made from ivory or antler is well known in the Bering Strait region, and evidence of this comes from one Ipiutak burial containing an armour slat (Pratt and Mason 2012).

Formation and Occupational History

Some researchers attest to Ipiutak being a late stage or cultural continuation of the Norton tradition; however, despite similarities in lithic technology and architecture (Mason 2014), this theory is argued, as cultural practices between the Norton tradition and the Ipiutak vary to a great degree (Qu 2013). It is possible that the Ipiutak originated in situ at Point Hope, developing out of the Norton “Near Ipiutak” culture (Mason 2014). The site’s contemporaneity and affiliation with the Old Bering Sea, Okvik, Punuk, and Birnirk cultures has been suggested, particularly with the Old Bering Sea and Okvik cultures based on similarities between their harpoon head style and those of the Ipiutak (Bandi 1969; Gerlach and Mason 1992). However, there is also evidence that the Ipiutak culture has Asian origins (Morrow and Volkman 1975).

As only 6% of house features and 4% of burials have been dated so far, little is known about those who occupied Ipiutak (Mason 2004). More excavations must take place in order to determine a more precise demography of Ipiutak, as well as the history of its formation and occupation (Mason 2004).

Material Culture

An extensive collection of utilitarian artifacts were excavated at Ipiutak. A significant number of hunting tools have been documented, with the bow and arrow representing the largest number (Bandi 1969). An ample amount of finely worked arrows have been found on site, primarily made from antler, but flint arrows are represented as well (Bandi 1969). While harpoon heads have been found, their numbers are far fewer than other tools (Bandi 1969). Additional hunting tools recorded are bird darts, and possibly fish spears. Household implements include flint blades, knives, engraving tools, and several tool types that were likely used for the construction of houses (Bandi 1969). Most artifacts appear to have been made from flint, a material that is readily available at Point Hope (Bandi 1969). No bow drills, ground slate, or ulus were discovered, nor is there any evidence of pottery or oil lamps, which differentiates the Ipiutak from the Norton tradition and other contemporary cultures in the region (Bandi 1969; Mason 2014).

Mortuary Practices

Ipiutak contains a complex burial tradition that suggests the past inhabitants’ culture was centered around powerful ritualistic themes. There is also evidence of social stratification having been in effect at the site, as some individuals are documented to have been given preferential treatment over others (Mason 1998). Among the approximately 140 individuals interred, two types of burials were found at Ipiutak: log coffins buried beneath the ground, and surface burials (Mason 1998). Individuals buried underground in coffins are found to be articulated with elaborate decorative items, such as sophisticated ivory carvings, inset eyes, nose plugs, masks, and animal figures that are proposed to be related to specific cults (Mason 1998). Surface burials contain disarticulated remains typically buried with utilitarian objects that have also been found in excavated domestic spaces (Mason 1998). Archaeologists have theorized that those provided with a more extravagant burial may have been shamans, as supernatural power seems to have been paramount at Ipiutak, as opposed to other contemporary sites (Mason 1998). This argument holds merit, as the beautifully complex decorative items are visually similar to shamanistic artifacts of Siberia (Mason 1998).

Ipiutak funerary mask

While the Ipiutak did not exist into historic times, cultural beliefs and practices may have survived in the area, as the importance of shamanism has been documented ethnographically in Point Hope (Nelson 1971). Locals are written to have both intensely feared and revered shamans, and would adhere to his every word (Nelson 1971). The shaman is said to have been responsible for the success of the community and the health of his fellow villagers through his supernatural abilities (Nelson 1971). If this was also the case in prehistoric times, the theory that the special funerary rituals documented at Ipiutak were for shamans is possible (Nelson 1971).

Of particular interest that further demonstrates the elaborate burials possibly having been reserved for shamans is a distinct burial containing a loon’s skull with the same inset ivory eyes and jet pupils as the human remains (Morrow and Volkman 1975). The loon is a common being in circumpolar mythology, and while Arctic mythology featuring the loon varies slightly, they all share the same core theme: the loon is connected to vision and shamanistic power; they are a giver of sight and supernatural ability (Morrow and Volkman 1975).

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