Scrimshaw with a difference

Fisherman-mending-netsIf you’ve ever wondered what the folks used to do in a few minutes of downtime before everybody had a smart phone to fiddle with – it was a spot of scrimshaw. Well, it was if you were a whaler in the 18th or 19th century.

Scrimshaw is the carving of images onto the leftover bleached bones or ivory from the carcasses of hunted marine mammals. Most commonly, the bones and teeth of sperm whales and the ivory tusks of walruses were used. Nowadays when you see these types of examples in museums, which in some cases so obviously look like the original whale tooth or tusk, it’s quite disconcerting. We know that the 19th-century industrialised hunting of sperm whales has taken the species to near extinction and knowing that coloured my response to the whalers’ handiwork. Of course, they were unaware of the extent of the damage being done, for them being a whaler was simply a hard and dangerous way to earn a living. I suppose the best that can be said is that whilst living this harsh life they still wished to be productive and creative, and their finished pieces were tradable and are now viewed as folk art.

Interestingly and unusually, at the Time and Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth, along with the carved sperm whale teeth there were a couple scrimshaw ostrich eggs. Still, I would definitely prefer a dark chocolate Easter Egg instead!

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