Eye-conic Siberian Spectacles: Dazzling Eye Fashion From 2,000 Years Ago Until Today
By The Siberian Times
Siberian goggles are among the world’s earliest eyewear to prevent blindness from the sun’s piercing reflection off the snow. The following remarkable pictures and drawings show a range of ‘eye-conic Siberian spectacles’ in use today as they were in the ancient past.
What Are the Ancient Snow Goggles Made of?
Some are crafted in silver, but over the centuries these snow goggles - both a stark necessity and a facial fashion statement - were also made by the Chukchi people and Eskimo groups from walrus teeth, whalebone, or leather as well as wood, bark, and hair. The softer materials were used especially in the deep winter cold, being kinder to the facial skin.
Those made from metal have tiny cross-like slits for the user to see while blotting out most of harsh bright sun rays from the eyes.
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Long before the emergence of modern-day protective sunglasses, Siberian hunters were forced to find their own solution to the dazzling glare reflecting from the snow, as our video from Yakutsk explains.
In ancient times, like today, these goggles were made by skilled masters to combine effectiveness in blotting out the blinding light and to create an amazing appearance.
Different ethnic groups across polar regions evolved their own distinctive style in snow goggles.
The Oldest Known Eyewear
The oldest known eyewear belongs to the Old Bering Sea culture, with sites located on both sides of the Bering Strait.
The oldest date for the culture - around 400 years BC - was obtained on the Russian side at Ekven graveyard, in Chukotka.
The oldest known eyewear belongs to the Old Bering Sea culture, with sites located on both sides of the Bering Strait. Images: YakutCostume, The Siberian Times
The peak of the culture is considered to be in second and third centuries AD.
Snow goggles made of bone were found at Ekven and also Uelen graveyards dating from the first to the fifth centuries AD.
Some were decorated with carvings and some were not. Examples are shown here in these drawings.
Some were decorated with carvings and some were not. Examples are shown here in these drawings. Pictures: YakutCostume, The Siberian Times
Later the snow goggle tradition was continued by Eskimos; for example the Inuit, Yupik, and the Chukchi people. They made goggles of bone, including whalebone, along with ivory from extinct mammoths, antler, and wood. Sometimes the surface of the goggles was painted black to provide more protection from the sun.
Snow goggles found in burials around Siberia; some of them were made of horse hair, the others of birch bark. Pictures: YakutCostume, The Siberian Times
Northern latitudes of the US and Canada also have a tradition for making such eyewear.
Practical and Ritual Usage
While there was an obvious practical use for the goggles, a variant of these ‘spectacles’ is believed to have been used by traditional shamans; for example a pair of goggles without holes of slips was found at Ekven.
The Evenks and Dolgans people turned to metal in making the eyewear, with copper or tin or silver goggles inserted into a half-mask made of reindeer skin or another pelt, or, later, cloth obtained from Russian incomers. Sometimes they also decorated them with beads.
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Keeping the Ancient Goggle Tradition Alive in Yakutia
The tradition continues to this day and is thriving in Yakutia - also known as Sakha Republic, the largest region in the Russian Federation.
Going back in time, the Yakut people used a wide range of materials to make goggles - metal, birch bark, wood, bone, skin, and horsehair.
Back into fashion - a craftsman in Yakutsk makes a pair of new snow goggles. Image: The Siberian Times
The goggles created from horsehair comprised strips of intricate netting. A surviving 19th century example comes not from Yakutia but Tuva, the mountainous region in southern Siberia, now in a collection in the Irkutsk Museum of Local History.
Most of the metal goggles in Yakut collections are dated from between the 18th and early 20th centuries.
Again, some definitely had ritualistic uses: they were deployed by shamans, and not in everyday day life for use in the snow.
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Many Yakuts recall that their grandfathers had very simple goggles made of birch bark.
Most of the older goggles look rather simple - for example a metal strip with a small depression for the nose and slots for the eyes to see. Others have two round metal discs with a slit to see through while blotting out most of the glare; these were fixed into the skin or fur mask.
A more modern evolution are goggles made of silver with cross-shaped slits and a fur lining.
Siberian snow goggles of all shapes, materials, and colors. Images: YakutCostume, The Siberian Times
This silver eyewear inspires modern local designers in Yakutia, as our photographs show.
Local historian Prokopy Nagovitsyn said:
“The round shaped silver goggles began to make an appearance in 19th century, when they appealed to many rich people. The shape had a symbolic meaning - cross in the circle had been the symbol of the sun since Neolithic times. Yet the cross-shaped cuts are convenient not when you are in tundra, but when you, for example, climb steps.”
“Such goggles were also used by shamans. People believed that when a man became a shaman, he could have kill[ed] with the might of his look, so these goggles could have been seen as a protective shield.”
Top Image: Long before the emergence of modern-day protective sun glasses, Siberian hunters were forced to find their own solution to the dazzling glare reflecting from the snow. Source: Kate Geraskina / The Siberian Times
The article, originally titled, ‘Flair to avoid snow glare - dazzling eye fashion from 2,000 years ago until today’ originally appeared on The Siberian Times and has been republished with permission.