Tag Archives: artifacts

Shopping maul

Maul from the Dundas Collection.  Source: Sotheby's

Tsimshian Maul from the Dundas Collection. Source: Sotheby's

The Dundas collection of Tsimshian objects deserves a week of posts – not just for the stunning beauty and resonance of the art but for the profound issues in heritage management, cultural property ownership, and repatriation ethics which it raises or exemplifies.  I’ve been reading up on it a bit, and at one level the isssue is very simple: these Tsimshian treasures should have been repatriated – not to Canada per se, but to Tsimshian Territory.  At another level, there are complex, interwoven threads of (mutual) respect and ownership which make (and made) for no easy solution.   And no easy solution was reached: the collection was broken up, with the majority of the pieces sold to foreign hands (by foreign, here, I mean non-Tsimshian though I am prepared to argue this).

But for today, I was interested to see the Sotheby’s auction catalogue from the 2006 sale of this collection is still online.  The most interesting piece, of course, is the northern-style maul, seen above.  It sold for a surprising USD $1,320.00.  I wonder if it was in use at the time of collection or if it was already an archaeological specimen.  Collection of such materials from archaeological sites and their sale is, of course, now illegal although so far as I know there is a grandfather clause for older collections pre-dating the modern legislation.  I imagine any maul without such prominent provenance would be worth very little indeed.  Despite fetching far more than I would have imagined, it was a mere snip compared to the mask below which sold for a jaw-dropping USD$1,808,000.00.

Tsimshian Mask from the Dundas Collection. Source: Sotheby's.

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Ha’ina: supernatural Nuu-chah-nulth crystal?

Crystal artifact said to be used to summon guests to feasts. Source: British Museum

Hmmm, coincidences.  Two or three days ago I was having a beer with a recently graduated student of mine, who was telling me about a number of quartz crystal artifacts he had found in an excavation in the Fraser Valley.  Now, artifacts made of quartz crystal are well known in the Gulf of Georgia — the nature of the rock makes it highly suitable for flaked stone tool production, especially microblades.  Ethnographic accounts suggest they could also be used for sawing very tough rock types such as nephrite.  However, the artifacts being described to me the other night included complete crystals with grooves around the bases — pendant-like, perhaps, or specialized abraders, or, well, or what?

Well,  in a stunning display of “coincidence”, or a happy intervention from a raven, today I ran across just such a shiny little thing at the British Museum website.  From their text, (which I cannot vouch for, having never heard of such a thing before):

The Nuu-chah-nulth believed that these crystals, or ha’ina, grew on the top of mountains and were endowed with magical qualities for bringing wealth and good fortune, for example, when hunting sea otter.

This ha’ina was collected by Captain George Dixon, who had accompanied Captain Cook on his Third Voyage (1776-80) to Vancouver Island. In 1785-88 Dixon made a trading voyage on the King George and Queen Charlotte which was promoted by the King George’s Sound Company (King George’s Sound was Captain Cook’s short-lived name for Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island, where this crystal was collected, probably from the Mowachaht people.)

The Nuu-chah-nulth used the ha’ina to invite people to potlatches, the great feasts given to celebrate life-cycle events at which hereditary rights were displayed. The invitation to a potlatch would take place at a gathering a year or two before the potlatch, when the crystal would be, metaphorically speaking, sent out to the prospective guests. They may have ‘sent’ this example to Dixon. Dixon was supported by Sir Joseph Banks in his work, and through Banks gave this ‘piece of rock crystal’ to the British Museum on 22 May 1789.

It would be sad and ironic (though not surprising) if this artifact was indeed an invitation never acknowledged, an unfulfilled RSVP, and if the gormless British had managed to interpret an invitation as a commodity and not as a request for honour, attendance and respect.  It would be wrong on a number of levels to draw conclusions about the Fraser Valley examples, but it does show the potentially fuzzy boundaries between symbolic and functional material culture.

Oregon: Where Past is Present

Stone lamp from interior Oregon with inset eyes of abalone shell. Source: OMNCH.

The Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History has some very nice exhibits and it looks like their underlying collections are superb.  Their online photo-gallery “Oregon: Where Past is Present” is some pretty nice eye-candy, though I would love to see them give a little more information about each piece.  The sculptural lamp above is simply superb.

So-called "wealth blade" made of flaked obsidian, length 25 cm. Source: OMNCH

Tse-whit-zen whale

Tse-whit-zen whale sculpture.  Source: Peninsula News, Port Angeles.

Whale sculpture from the Tse-whit-zen archaeological site, Port Angeles. Source: Peninsula News.

The Tse-whit-zen site is a former Klallam Tribe village that was discovered by the construction of a graving dock at Port Angeles, Washington State.  The subsequent disturbance and archaeological project led to an astonishing series of events with over 300 human burials recovered, many more disturbed, 65,000 artifacts recovered and after a huge investment the abandonment of the graving dock project at a cost some estimate in excess of 100 million dollars.  This is a story I want to know more about and will probably post on from time to time.

But for today, set aside the sad history and feast your eyes on the above small sculpture of a whale discovered during the summer of 2009 at Tse-whit-zen during mopping up remediation.  The artist has captured the essence of whale!  The article doesn’t say, but there may be a socket on the lower back of the whale just in front of the tail – perhaps this was the handle for a small chisel, or a knife.  I also wonder if it doesn’t go the other way up — the mouth is asymmetric and the arching back of a diving whale would be a more natural posture.  Either way, this is a happy little sculpture, probably dating from about 2,000 years ago.

Canoe Steaming

Carl and Joe Martin steam a canoe near Tofino. Click to play video.

The Northwest Coast is rightly famous for the superb dugout canoes made by First Nations, a craft which continues to the present day.  It takes weeks or months to carve  a canoe from a single log of red cedar – imagine then the tension inherent in having a big part of the success or failure “boil down” to a single event the steaming process.  The video above shows master carvers Joe and Carl Martin of the Nuu-chah-nulth nation steaming a canoe at a beach near Tofino, on western Vancouver Island.

Steaming softens the cedar and makes it more flexible, allowing the insertion of carefully-measured, carefully-planned wooden spacers which spread the middle of the canoe into a graceful curve, increasing its buoyancy, resistance to capsizing, and introducing subtle yet beautiful lines, as seen in this enormous example mis-labelled (I think) as Salish.  After the canoe cools and dries, the wood returns to its natural properties. The process means the canoe can in principle be wider than the single piece of cedar from which it is carved.

You can click here to see a slide show of the steaming of a Haida canoe carved by the team of Jaalen Edenshaw and his father Guujaw. In the old times, a canoe might be roughed out in the bush then hauled to the beach for finishing.  Sometimes flaws in the wood or other interruptions mean a canoe was never finished.  Such half-finished vessels are a known, but uncommon archaeological site in the woods of coastal British Columbia.

The carving of such canoes is increasingly common.  Nowadays, the canoe log is likely to be hauled to a carving shed.  Sadly, a major constraint  on canoe construction is the difficulty in obtaining prime, straight, clear, old-growth cedar logs.

Partially finished Haida canoe in forest. Photo by Martin Lalune.

Another Haida Argillite Pipe for Sale

Haida panel pipe, nineteenth century.

A few days ago I featured photographs of a stunning 19th century Haida argillite pipe for sale at a UK web site.  They have a second pipe for sale, a more complex design but in poorer condition.  The photos are similarly revealing of carving strokes and rock grain; even more so in some ways as this piece appears to be unfinished.  The design is complex focusing on Raven and Bear (not the Frog as the description below says, I don’t think), but it is not for me to try to decode the story being told.

The description is given as follows:

19thC. HAIDA ARGILLITE PIPE PANEL. #asc004 #asc004

Probably from the Raven Tribe, the panel carved with various mythological figures including a raven, a man, a frog and the thunder bird, this is possibly part of a larger panel and the top has been slightly filed flat for mounting on a stand, (not photographed). Overall 13.5cm.

From the Haida tribes of the Northwest Pacific Coast of British Columbia and Queen Charlotte Island

£2,500.00

Again, for posterity, here are nine views of this pipe: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.  As I noted before, while not as sharp as the other set, these photographs surpass most of what one finds on many, many museum sites, where the rule seems to be: offer a single view of an object, offer it at low resolution, do not allow direct hyperlinks to the file, and break the URL as soon as possible.

Front view of panel pipe.

Top view of pipe.

Haida Argillite Pipe: High Resolution Pictures

Detail: Haida Argillite Pipe ca. 1880. http://www.antiquearms.co.uk

I occasionally complain about the lousy pictures that professional organizations put on the web.  I guess I should know that when you have something to sell, you put it’s best face forward; when you don’t, you might not care as much.  Check out the high resolution pictures of this Haida argillite pipe for sale (4,800 GBP).  Multiple angles of the pipe, each one sharp and crisp: you can see each stroke of the knife and the grain of the slate.  Yes there is some glare but the images are much better than most museums make available on the web.  Amazing stuff.

Described as:

19thC. HAIDA ARGILLITE EFFIGY PIPE. #4213 #4213

a bowl carved in the form of a European sailor’s head with large rounded eyes and long straight nose, a figure seated astride the stem also with large rounded eyes and long straight nose and with arms extended wearing European costume with a stripe incised along the sides of the tunic arms and the trousers. Overall 20cm. From the tribes of the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America, principily Northern Columbia and Queen Charlotte Island. 20cm

This pipe was brought back and formed part of the collection of John Madden (1837-1902) of Hilton Park Clones Co, Monaghan Ireland, he left the Irish family estate at the age of 24 to travel by horse across the eastern states of America as far as the Great Lakes just before the start of the Civil War. During his later travels between 1870-1890 he is known to have reached British Columbia where he bought this pipe, it stayed in the family home until the collection was sold at an auction of part of the contents of Hilton Park on the 8th July 1985 where this item was aquired.

For the record, here are the seven views offered by the dealer: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.

Haida Pipe: detail as if looking down the stem to the bowl.