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Getting to the bones (or ivory or horn?) of the matter…

28 July 14 -- Anonymous
Dr. Sonia O’Connor reviewing the diagnostic features of elephant ivory
Dr. Sonia O’Connor reviewing the diagnostic features of elephant ivory.

Blog post contributed by Joanna Ostapkowicz, Curator Americas Collections, World Museum, Liverpool

Artefacts are intriguing visual puzzles, often deeply layered with materials and meaning. But if devoid of context, how do we begin to understand them? 

One way ‘in’ is to take a deeper look at the materials they are made from. These components often offer insights on a myriad of issues – from the quantity of time invested in their manufacture, to provenance and cultural significance, to their conservation needs. 

Distinguishing between hard materials such as wood, bone and shell seems, at first, a simple matter. But once such materials get cut, worked, polished and otherwise modified, identification is not always straightforward.  When confronted with a white, highly polished fragment, how easy is it to distinguish whether it is shell, bone or ivory – and if the latter, whether it is elephant, hippo or walrus ivory? Yet these are the key distinctions that bring one closer to untangling the very nature of the object – from its source and possible use to its meaning to the people who created it.

Dr. O’Connor discussing whale baleen during the lecture on keratinous materials

The two day workshop Cultural Objects Worked in Skeletal Hard Tissues, led by Dr. Sonia O’Connor, provided invaluable insights into some of the varied issues relating to the identification of osseous (bone, antler, ivory) and keratinous (horn, hoof, tortoiseshell and baleen) materials. There were six lectures on specific materials, each followed by a dedicated handling session, which benefited from Sonia’s comprehensive study collection, as well as ethnographic collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum and a selection of rare and unusual specimens from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.  The 10 delegates – mainly conservators and curators – were encouraged to take a closer look at the materials in question, including their microscopic structure (there was the luxury of 10 microscopes, so no queues!). Although size, shape and weight can assist in distinguishing between such osseous materials as elephant and walrus ivory, it is often only when you get down to minute, cell structure details that small fragments can be distinguished and identified.  These handling sessions proved practical in building experience on how to assess and distinguish between various criteria to help in identification. From my perspective, the most intriguing session was on imitations and forgeries – and proved just how resourceful and clever forgers could be, and how careful one needs to be in detecting them.


Practical handling session on antler

The last session culminated in a challenging quiz, in which each participant was given six artefacts to identify, and each presented the reasoning for their conclusions.  It proved a good review of what we had learned and how far we had come – a clear testament to Sonia’s teaching and our growing appreciation for the materials we were examining. Personally, I got a tremendous amount out of the workshop, and would like to extend my thanks to Sonia and the organisers of the event – the ICON Ethnography Group, Oxford University Museum of Natural History and Pitt Rivers Museum – and Oxford Aspire, for the bursary that enabled my participation.  

I put the study to good use almost immediately: as a curator working with ethnographic collections, the practical experience gained comes in handy on a regular basis.  Some weeks after the workshop, I visited a US museum to study their Caribbean collections, and was able to reclassify a few material misattributions (some ‘wood’ fishhooks, were, in fact, made of tortoise shell). I’m now starting work on a remarkable 16th century sculpture from the Caribbean that has a rhino horn mask – which begs the question, how did such a luxury material come to the Caribbean at a time when even basic supplies from Spain were hard to come by, enter indigenous trade networks, and get transformed into a work that merged indigenous, European and, potentially, African wealth?  As was repeatedly noted in the workshop, and is an adage one can take through life: expect the unexpected!