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  • Phoebe Pierard

On Bone

etched by Phoebe Pierard (she/her)


As I prepared to present my undergraduate research project at a conference in Melbourne, a small fish in a sea of established academics, I couldn't help but reflect on how different this was from what I had envisioned for my summer research scholarship. My subject, ‘Reading Scrimshaw in Aotearoa’, was all about unearthing the largely forgotten folk art of etched and inked whale teeth. Through this project I worked to illuminate the ways in which material culture can be a valuable history-keeping source.


Scrimshaw is the traditional art of carving intricate designs onto whale teeth or bones. This practice has its roots in maritime culture and was particularly popular among sailors during long sea voyages. These skilled craftsmen, known as scrimshanders, would meticulously etch detailed images onto the ivory-like surfaces, often featuring nautical themes, ships, or marine creatures. While scrimshaw originated in other seafaring nations, it has become a part of Aotearoa's cultural fabric, reflecting the country's strong connection to the ocean and rich maritime history. 


I spent countless hours sitting in the garden with my laptop, meticulously documenting any instances of scrimshaw that I could find in the museum databases of Australia and Aotearoa. I combed through the National Library and even travelled to the Waikato Museum for their exhibit "Scratching the Surface" and the Butler Point Museum in Hihi. After all of this research, presenting in Melbourne would have felt like the perfect conclusion to my project.


At the first challenge, defining the term 'scrimshaw', it became clear that the art form in Aotearoa and Australia had its own unique perspective. Most information is from America, where whaling was most prominent. This was especially problematic when reading literature such as Dr Stuart M. Frank’s Dictionary of Scrimshaw Artists. His definition of scrimshaw seemed at odds with what I had encountered in the Southern Hemisphere. Dr Frank stated that even works made in the same style and technique as scrimshaw are of a different “genre” if made under other circumstances than traditional nautical sailors’ scrimshaw. For instance, prisoner-of-war art from the Napoleonic wars and powder horns are often conflated with scrimshaw despite being made under differing circumstances and with varied materials. Frank was referring mainly to the case of scrimshaw in America, where engraving powder horns “anticipated later scrimshaw techniques”. 


In Aotearoa, however, due to the nature of colonisation, the link between nautical scrimshaw and those on bullock horns is far more robust. The connection is seen in the style and period of the artwork. Regardless of its setting or material, all scrimshaw would have been directly linked to the sea. Whether the scrimshander learnt at sea himself or from those who had, it is most beneficial to group these as one. Powder and bullock horns often feature ships despite not being made of whale teeth. Likewise, whale teeth not only feature nautical scenes but often depict scenes from newspapers, paintings, and other images from daily life, such as birds, which are also present in different modes of scrimshaw art.


As well as reflecting how Aotearoa was colonised, the depictions on individual scrimshaw challenged me to push the definition of ‘literature’ itself. Unpacking these definitions, and identifying commonalities between these three modes of scrimshaw art (prisoner of war, nautical, and bullock horns) allowed a new view of scrimshaw. The art form was revealed to be deeply literary. 


Part of the joy of being able to take on such a project at undergrad level was that I was encouraged to approach the research with an interdisciplinary lens. I had to reconsider what it is to ‘read’ and how art denoted as a craft and associated with illiterate, unknown sailors opens the scope for considering neglected pieces of history as material culture. 


The most straightforward way of doing this was to trace the stories and art depicted on scrimshaw. I found myself going through deep rabbit holes, tracing images through time. Many of the repeated motifs on scrimshaw across Aotearoa could be found directly in the newspaper periodical Illustrated London News, which artists used to prick the outline of images they liked to recreate on scrimshaw. More than just connecting it to current affairs on the other side of the world, these illustrations reflected settler ideals and the sense of displacement and desire for home. Often pictured is art from the Royal Academy exhibitions, decorative cups from horse races, and women shown upholding domesticity and civility, often shown reading to small children.


While there are limitations to art such as scrimshaw, in that there is often a need for provenance due to its neglect within academia, working with such rich material culture raises the question of what histories we legitimise. Scrimshaw, often unmarked and made by illiterate whalers, tells the tale of those otherwise lost to time. It is a clear, rich source for understanding the circumstances of those who created it. The specificity of researching such a topic in Aotearoa allowed for a greater scope and non-traditional approach: broadening definitions and thinking with an interdisciplinary lens, which must be applied to other forms of material culture that enrich our understanding of history. 


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