Engraved bag handle


The use of engraving images in walrus ivory is a significant aspect of Indigenous Arctic cultures, particularly among the Inuit (commonly referred to historically as Eskimo, a term now considered outdated or offensive by some).This craft is part of a long-standing tradition that dates back thousands ofyears and serves not only as a form of artistic expression but also as a crucial element of cultural identity and survival.

The practice of engraving walrus ivory by the Indigenous peoples of the Arctic, including the Inuit, Yupik, and Aleut communities, is deeply rooted in their history. These engravings, known as scrimshaw in some contexts, often depict scenes from daily life, mythology, and the rich spiritual beliefs of these communities. The materials used, primarily walrus tusks, are readily available in the Arctic environment and have been utilized for both functional objects and ornate artworks.

The technique of engraving walrus ivory involves careful carving with sharp instruments, traditionally made from other bones or metals obtained through trade. The intricate details in these engravings require a high degree of skill and patience, reflecting the artisan's dedication and respect for their cultural heritage.

Themes commonly found in these engravings include hunting scenes, depicting the deep relationship and reverence the Indigenous Arctic peoples have with the animals of their environment. Mythological creatures and stories are also popular subjects, illustrating the rich oral traditions passed down through generations. Additionally, patterns and symbols specific to the artist's community or family are often incorporated, adding a personal touch to each piece.

For the Indigenous peoples of the Arctic, engraving walrus ivory is more than an artistic endeavor; it is a vital aspect of their cultural identity and a means of preserving their heritage. These artworks serve as a bridge between past and present, allowing artists to maintain a connection with their ancestors while sharing their culture and stories with future generations.

Moreover, the creation and trade of engraved walrus ivory objects have historically been important for the economic well-being of these communities. In recent times, however, this practice has faced challenges due to global trade restrictions aimed at protecting walrus populations. Despite these obstacles, the Indigenous peoples of the Arctic continue to advocate for their right to sustainably use their traditional resources and maintain their cultural practices.

Engraving images in walrus ivory by the Indigenous Arctic peoples is a profound expression of cultural identity, historical continuity, and respect for the natural world. This art form embodies the resilience, creativity, and spiritual depth of the Inuit and other Indigenous Arctic communities, making it an invaluable aspect of humanity's cultural heritage. 

This bag handle is profusely engraved on both sides and includes scenes of hunters, dwellings, caribou, foxes, otters, fish and insects - this work is an amazing visual depiction of life in the 19th century amongst the native inhabitants of Alaska.

Mid-19th century
Marine ivory
Length: 14 in, 36 cm

Private USA collection

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