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Sheldon Jackson Museum August 2021 Artifacts of the Month are Walrus Ivory Items

by LAM Webmaster on 2021-08-19T08:36:00-08:00 in Artifact of the Month, Museums, Sheldon Jackson Museum | 0 Comments

For Immediate Release
August 18, 2021

selection of walrus ivory artifactsThe Sheldon Jackson Museum August Artifacts of the Month are a selection of walrus ivory items. They include:

  • buttons depicting two women in parkas and a whale hunting scene
  • a belt buckle with a red and green motif
  • a letter opener with a polar bear head
  • a bracelet with alternating fossil and ivory beads
  • a napkin ring with a halibut carved on it
  • a carved snowshoe hare

(SJ-II-X-393, SJ-II-O-12, SJ-II-X-402A, II-X-632, SJ-II-X-217)

We have little information on these artifacts. But their designs are typical of early to mid 20th century Inupiaq curio trade items produced during the Nome Gold Rush.

After the discovery of gold at Nome in 1898, thousands of people arrived with dreams of striking it rich. This influx created a large demand for local commodities, including fur garments, tools, mukluks, dolls, ulus, skin scrapers, harpoon heads, flint knives, bow drills, sled runners, and plain ivory tusks.

Not much ivory was sold to the newcomers early on. The very first objects made and sold for the tourist trade were ivory needle cases. But a carver named Angokwazhuk, also known as Happy Jack, quickly changed the market. Earlier carvers often applied impressionistic graphic representations into walrus ivory. But Angokwazhuk combined his own style with more realistic scrimshaw imagery. 

The scrimshaw influence may have come from his experience aboard a whaling ship. Twice, a Captain named Hartson Bodfish invited Angokwazhuk to sail from Alaska to San Francisco. Bodfish took an interest in his carving ability and his story of escaping certain death. In the winter of 1891, a hunting trip had gone awry, leaving Angokwazhuk a frostbitten double amputee without feet.

Angokwazhuk moved to Nome in 1900 and introduced ivory cribbage boards. The scrimshaw-inspired cribbage boards appear to be the first of their kind and may have permanently altered the market for walrus ivory artwork. Soon other carvers began making ivory cribbage boards. Many learned from Happy Jack. Other new forms of non-utilitarian ivory carvings appeared on the market. Ivory carvings with potential utility were purchased as collectibles or keepsakes. These included ivory animal figurines, napkin rings, salt and pepper shakers, chess sets, buttons, belt buckets, gavels, and letter openers.    

Carving ivory requires a great deal of time and effort. Carvers use saws, adzes, files, gravers, bow drills, and occasionally a crooked knife.[1] After harvesting a tusk, a carver often allows it to dry out for at least two weeks and up to a year. The best ivory – large pieces with little signs of cracking – are reserved for carving in the round. Less desirable pieces are used for pendants, bracelets, and other small objects.

A tusk can be cut in several ways. Every effort is made to prevent splitting. First, the rough outer covering of the tusk is removed with an adze. A saw can cut ivory longitudinally or in cross sections for carving.  After trimming, the tusk is cut into square or rectangular pieces with a hack saw. Those blocks are then refined with a coping saw. Files are used to increase the fineness. Next, a graver or bow drill can be used to add detail. A graver is used to make animal ears, mouth, and eye holes. The eyeholes are inlaid with ivory or baleen or filled with graphite, which was available via trade in the 19th century. [2]

Carvers have a variety of ways to add black aside from using baleen inlay. Some fill in details using graphite or cigarette ash mixed with saliva, India ink, or lead pencil. Before graphite was available, charcoal from burned grass could be mixed with oil or charcoal or gunpowder could be mixed with blood. One of the artifacts of the month, a snowshoe hare, has black features created with India ink. Sometimes red from hematite was applied for bird or animal mouths. This practice is less common, but characteristic in the Nunivak and Nelson Islands (where the letter opener with a polar bear head and red mouth is thought to come from). 

Of course Alaska Natives were carving ivory long before the arrival of miners, prospectors, collectors, civil servants, tourists, and other consumers. Ivory carvings and fragments have been found in Inupiaq and Yup’ik archaeological sites dating back thousands of years. Ivory was used to make hunting implements such as harpoon heads, shaft-ends, seal scratchers tipped with seal claws, bolas, harpoon rests, dolls, and amulets. [3] Examples date back to the Okvik (500 to 100 B.C.), Old Bering Sea (100 A.D.), and Punuk/Thule and early prehistoric periods (1100 AD).

The August Artifacts of the Month will be on exhibit through August 31. The Sheldon Jackson Museum is home to approximately 900 artifacts made of walrus ivory or that have walrus ivory elements. You can view them Tuesday-Saturday, 10 am-4 pm. General admission is $9 for adults, $8 for seniors, and free for those 18 and under or members of Friends of the Sheldon Jackson Museum / Friends of the Alaska State Museum.

Media Contact:

Patience Frederiksen
Director, Division of Libraries, Archives and Museums

Jean Ray, Dorothy. Artists of the Tundra and Sea. University of Washington Press. Seattle, 1961

[1] In contemporary times, the adze has been fitted with a steel blade.

[2] A bow drill would not have been used to make the August Artifacts of the month, but would have been useful for a cribbage board or any ivory carving requiring a lot of small holes. The bow drill is a unique carving tool that enables carvers to make holes in bone, ivory, antler, and wood, and to start fire. The bow drill is comprised of a mouthpiece, a shaft, a bow made of whale rib bone or whale jawbone, and a piece of leather cord. The mouthpiece is held between the teeth and has a stabilizer to keep the drill shaft in place. The mouthpiece is often made with the stone syenite, which can withstand a great deal of friction. Sometimes less preferable iron is used in place of syenite. The drill bow shaft is made from driftwood of spruce or hickory, imported from the eastern part of the U.S. Carvers use commercially available drill points, gunny sack needles they make themselves, nails, or in earlier times, jadite. A piece of leather cord is attached at each end of the whale bone bow. The drill shaft is rotated back and forth, twirling with the leather cord.

[3] In earlier times, before the introduction of metal, carving was done with sharp flints after soaking the ivory in urine to make it easier to carve. After engraving, mixtures of gun powder, once available, and blood were rubbed into lines to make them stand out.

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