Monday, 4 June 2012

Elephant No. 246: Scrimshaw

A few weeks ago, we had a dinner party at which we served prime rib. I saved the rib bones at the time, thinking they might make a good surface for trying scrimshaw.

At first I thought this might not be real scrimshaw, since it's engraved in bone rather than something like whale or elephant ivory. Then I read that modern scrimshaw is engraved into bone as well as synthetic resins, so I guess I'm safe.

Scrimshaw traditionally refers to engravings made in the bones, teeth and tusks of marine mammals such as whales and walrus. Scratched into the surface of the material, scrimshaw was first produced on whaling ships during the mid-eighteenth century. A scrimshaw artisan is known as a "scrimshander".

The origin of the word "scrimshaw" is shrouded in mystery. The most plausible definition, according to a couple of sources, derives from a woman's name. During the nineteenth century, a British woman called Jane Scrimshaw became famous for living a rumoured 127 years. Although her age was likely exaggerated, her name came to mean "a very long time". Sailors may thus have adopted her name to describe a lengthy time at sea, along with one of the common activities undertaken to pass the time.

Detail of scrimshaw on whale tooth.
Collection of the Scrimshaw Museum, Horta, Azores.

Because whaling was so dangerous, whalers were not able to work at night. This left them with more leisure than other sailors, and many of them filled the time producing scrimshaw and other items—often as love tokens for wives and sweethearts back home.

Scrimshaw was traditionally produced with readily available tools such as sail needles, penknives and iron nails. The surface of the bone, tooth or other material was incised with repeated scratching over the same lines. To make the pattern more obvious, candle black, soot or even tobacco juice was often rubbed into the grooves. Occasionally, the surface was rubbed with wax to protect the design.

One of the most important parts of the process was preparing the surface. To keep the stain from absorbing into the material, the bone or tooth was polished to seal its pores. Some accounts suggest that sailors spent far more time pre-polishing the material than actually producing the design.

Scrimshaw is still produced today, albeit not normally with whale teeth—nor with the elephant ivory that was later used. Modern scrimshanders often use dental tools, and sometimes ink their work with multiple colours. Historical scrimshaw is also highly sought after, with entire museums devoted to this traditional art.

Polychrome scrimshaw knife handles by Edmund Davidson, 2010.

For today's elephant, I prepared the bone a couple of days ago by boiling it in salt water, boiling it again, then baking it in an oven to dry it out. This is what my cleaned bone looked like:

I ground off the icky parts at the end, along with any really rough bits, then polished the carving surface. I spent a bit of extra time on the wider part, as I thought it had some interesting natural lines that I could probably use.

By the way, the smell of heated bone during the polishing process was nothing short of vile. It almost made this carnivore want to become a vegetarian.

I drew a design on the bone in pencil, adding a spray of water from the elephant's trunk in a nod to scrimshaw's origins.

After this, I spent a little over an hour scratching the design into the bone with a sharp tapestry needle. I decided to use a tapestry needle to try and approximate the original technique—and also because I figured any kind of power tool would likely get away with me on something with lines this fine.

This part of the activity is a bit tedious, and really hard to see. I had to keep turning the bone to try and catch the light. Otherwise, it was virtually impossible to see my previous lines in order to scratch over them. I had no idea how deep the lines needed to be, so I went over the lines until I could feel them when I ran my fingers over the bone. The photograph below—which I enhanced as much as possible to show the engraved lines—gives you an idea of how difficult it was to see what I was doing.

Next, in another bow to tradition, I decided to use burnt bits of untrimmed candle wick to rub into the design. I then rubbed off the excess soot across the grain of the lines.

This worked quite well, although it looked like the sooty particles might not be fine enough to colour the most delicate lines.

I decided to add a bit of India ink to the parts that hadn't taken the soot well. This was almost a disaster, because in the areas that I hadn't polished as much—the spray from the trunk in particular—the ink absorbed into the bone, making it slightly cloudy and grey. I wet the bone and rubbed it vigorously, but you can still see the grey undertone.

The final piece looks like it was produced by a particularly inept child, but I'm not unhappy with it as a first attempt. I didn't like the lack of control or the tedium of this technique, so I'm not sure I'd rush to do something like this again; but it was an interesting exercise. And I now have a much greater appreciation for actual scrimshaw.

Elephant Lore of the Day
The interest of elephants in the bones of others of their species is well known. Interestingly, in addition to examining the bones of members of their own family group, they will also examine the bones of elephants not belonging to their herd.

It is thought that, when elephants examine the bones of other elephants, they are not only paying their respects, but may also be grieving. Researchers who study elephant behaviour have noticed that, when a herd comes across a collection of bones, they will often stop immediately and form a defensive circle.

Standing over the skeleton, they will turn over the bones with their trunks and nudge them with their feet. While making soft squeaks and rumbles, they will sometimes toss dirt on top of the bones. They will even pick up certain bones and examine them carefully, as seen in the video below.

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Wildlife Trust of India

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