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Anchorage Loan Conservation Project

Restoring meaning

Inupiaq top

Murdoch's Inupiaq top drawing

Inupiaq top with bone handle

The so-called top was brought to the conservation lab in this condition pictured above. The catalog card described it as a “spinning top”, collected by John Murdoch prior to 1883 at Nuwuk, Point Barrow, AK. The top which is made from the upper section of a mountain sheep horn is decorated with an incised circle and dot design pigmented in red. A deep hole is drilled into the tip of this element. A separate bone stem fits tightly into the horn tip, to which a length of a seal skin line is attached.

When the conservators consulted John Murdoch’s 1892 report, Ethnological Results of the Point Barrow Expedition, they discovered an early drawing of the top (above right) in the Toys section of his report, labeled whirligig. According to the drawing, parts were missing from the object: a large antler cylinder into which the bone stem had been inserted as well as the rest of the seal skin line and toggle. In addition, the top (pictured above left) suggests that the deep hole drilled into the tip of the horn may have once held feathers.

Special museum storage drawers for disassociated parts were searched and the missing antler cylinder was located. The part was reunited with the top.

Top Dance image E089807_Inupiaq_top_AT.jpg

Most exciting was the discovery of an article in the rural Alaskan newsletter, Village Voice showing a similar top, covered with feathers, being spun by an elder at the annual Point Hope Spinning Top Dance (Kiavsaq). The ceremonial use of the top is explained in the article; a good spin, with feathers flying, portends an auspicious year ahead.

In a museum context, objects are understood as cultural documents. Any decision to modify an object is given careful consideration. Conservators consulted with curators as to how to present this object so that its function was clearly understood. In the end it was decided that in order to correctly "read" this object as a ceremonial spinning top the missing elements would have to be restored. As a result, a line and toggle were fabricated in the conservation lab with each part labeled so as not to be confused as originals.

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National Museum of Natural History | Department of Anthropology | Collections and Archives Program