In the meantime, the deer stone remains singularly evocative. The pursed lips of the ancient visage, Fitzhugh believes, may depict the rounded mouth of a shaman, perhaps blowing evil spirits away. "Look at the trunk of the stone, dense with depictions of deer or elk, each shown sleeping or leaping into the air," he says. "One scholar, art historian Esther Jacobson at the University of Oregon, believes these images may link the stones with ancient Scythian art in central Asia. There’s so much about these artifacts that we don’t really know yet."
The back of the stone is equally intriguing. Carved on a monolith at a point that could be considered waist high is the representation of a belt, replete with detailed depictions of Bronze Age tools, an ax, a knife and other implements. "There’s nothing like this anywhere else on earth," Fitzhugh says.
He approaches the artifact with a sense of urgency. "The local people recognize the value of their history," he goes on. "But they don’t understand the archaeological significance or monetary value of these stones. Several have already disappeared, taken from their sites because they could be great rarities for collectors." Plenty of other threats exist as well. "Frost and cold have spalled some, causing chunks to break off. Livestock rubbing against the monoliths have worn down some of the stones." Fitzhugh adds that he and his team want to help "protect the stones from an increasingly intrusive world beyond the Tsaatan."
"We’re hoping," he says, "that our studies of the Tsaatan will demonstrate links to other Arctic peoples, creating an understanding of a more uniform circum-Arctic culture. The deer stones aren’t that different from totem poles and other native art of the American Arctic and the Pacific Northwest. More extensive studies of the Tsaatan, and of the deer stones, may help us make those connections.
"We may be archaeologists studying the past," he says, "but we focus on the future as well, on the survival of the Tsaatan and other threatened far northern cultures."