For centuries skeletal materials have provided the raw materials for making objects. Teeth (ivory), horn and tortoiseshell are probably the best known today but bone has also been used. Horn and tortoiseshell are natural plastics which can be moulded under heat as well as carved. Bone and teeth and antlers however need to be sawn, split, drilled, turned on a lathe or carved to shape them into a finished product.
The mechanical properties of bone could be affected by prolonged heating and bone used to make objects is usually taken directly from the carcase. Careful selection was of immense importance as quality varied greatly. In Europe, the bones of domestic animals were often used by families to make household items such as spoons, fish hooks and dress-pins.
Europeans probably began hunting whales as early as the sixth century and form this date whale and walrus bone began to be used as a substitute for expensive items made from elephant ivory. For less expensive items artisans also used cow and horse bones which, like whale bone, was easier to carve and polish. As a result many finely sculptured works for the wealthy, such as casket panels, were made from whale bone as well as ivory.
Geoff Barker, Assitant Curator, April 2008
MacGregor, A., 'Bone, Antler, Ivory and Horn: the technology of skeletal materials since the Roman period', Barnes and Noble Books, New Jersey, 1985.
Thomas, N., Entangled Objects;Exchange, Material Culture and Colonialism in the Pacific, Harvard University Press, London, 1991
West, J., Credland, G., 'Scrimshaw: The Art of the Whaler', Hutton Press, Yorkshire, England, 1995
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