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Much Ado about Scrimshaw, part II

by Jack Fritsch

(See Part I here )         

            When people first become curious about scrimshaw they are usually unsure of what exactly they are looking at. After all sailors in the old days encountered and used a wide variety of objects and materials that are completely foreign to most people today. How can you tell what that thingamajig is made of? Is it bone or ivory or what? And how can you tell whether it is a genuine antique piece of scrimshaw made in the good old days of wooden ships and iron (albeit greasy) men, or is it modern, a fake, perhaps even manufactured from some kind of synthetic material untouched by human hands?
            All genuine scrimshaw was made with some kind of organic material. Sailors had access to a variety of materials in their travels, prosaic to them but now alluringly exotic in our eyes. While most 18th and 19th Century scrimshaw was fashioned with whale’s teeth, baleen or whale bone, sailors also used walrus and occasionally elephant tusks, narwhal tusks, wild boar and hippo tusks, tortoise shell and dermal bones, sea shells, shark skin, fish bills, coconut shells, ostrich eggs, and various tropic woods. Many of these are immediately obvious and easy to identify, but others can pose a mystery to someone just starting their exploration.
            True ivory is very rare in nature, actually found today only in elephant tusks, and formerly in the paleolithic mastodon and mammoth tusks. Walrus tusks are very similar, and whale’s teeth (as well as narwhal, boar and hippo tusks) look very similar and are commonly called ivory, but are actually just teeth, sharing the same growth derivation and related structure to all other mammalian teeth.  Then there is bone, often looking so much like ivory when it is used for handles, inlay or small carvings. All these materials were once living and growing, arising from a cellular structure rather than a polymer laboratory. Like all organic matter these objects are distinctive from everything else on earth, and when examined will reveal clues to their identity. It’s just a matter of knowing what to look for… with the help of a 30X magnifying lens. Sounds simple, don’t it?
            Unlike smooth ivory, all bone has a grain of dark speckles or flecks arranged in interrupted striations. Where a tooth is only alive in its root, all of a bone is living connective tissue and so is permeated with blood vessels running through it. In an old piece of bone these vessels have dried out and leave a distinctive grain darkened by dried organic materials and usually visible to the naked eye. If you look at bone through a good magnifying lens you’ll find those stained striations as well as a series of pockmarking canals and tiny cavities. Os identificatious! Whale bone was very highly vascularized compared for instance to cow bone (maybe that’s why Elsie never took to diving after giant squid), and so whale bone has a busier, darker more noticeable grain that cow bone. The grain is stronger in the softer porous bones like ribs, and can be so faint in the denser bones like the panbone (the huge broad base of the jawbone) to be often confused with ivory.
            Elephant ivory is quite distinct. The tusks are made of a dentin, a matrix of 30% collagen and 70% minerals; unlike teeth there is no surface enamel, but there is a thick coating of cementum “bark” which is usually worn off towards the tip. The tusk grows by concentric layers of calcified dentin, producing a characteristic cross-hatch grain: picture a tic-tac-toe field made of alternating lighter and darker squares repeating on and on. While the faint and subtle surface striations can easily be lost in the patina or hidden by carving, the end grain is quite distinctive.
            Elephant ivory was considered the best quality ivory and highly prized by carvers and craftsmen in both Europe and Asia. Sailors on trade routes to Africa and Asia would no doubt have occasionally run into elephant tusks, but realistically their access to this material would have been pretty limited. Today you will find a lot of antique utensils, boxes and carvings made from this ivory by professional artisans over the centuries, but when you examine a piece of purported sailor’s folk art and find it was made from elephant tusk you should be very, very suspicious. In theory it could be genuine but you should tread carefully.
            Walrus ivory is also extremely distinct. The tusks are actually derived from the upper canine teeth and are composed of a central core of highly mineralized osteodentinor secondary dentin which looks like marble or oatmeal, an outer layer of primary dentin, a dense and smooth layer of cementum, and a surface layer of enamel (which may be worn off to a greater or lesser extent). Walrus tusk cementum is prone to develop longitudinal cracks which will continue down into the dentin. While the surface is smooth and dense (it has even less grain than elephant), that wild granular core reminiscent of marble… if the marble was made of rock hard tapioca (kind of like how momma used to make) is diagnostic. Since the primary dentine is relatively thin on the tusk, articles made of walrus ivory seem to always have the marbled core visible somewhere on the piece, along with those longitudinal cracks. Seek and ye shall find.
            The history of whale fishery saw sailors following the hunt to ever more remote seas, so that by the Civil War whalers had largely shifted their efforts from the Southern Oceans to Arctic. While chasing the bowhead whale for its oil and massive baleen, and they also took a great number of walrus tusks and seal pelts.  As a result walrus ivory is seen not only in Eskimo handicrafts, but also in many pieces of antique sailors' work.

In part three we will look at whale ivory and other materials.

This excerpt first appeared in Jack Fritsch's blog for Antiques Depot.  Jack is a partner in Antiques Depot, 14 Easy Street, Nantucket 02554  Tel:  508-228-1287