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A Hornbill Spoon

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For much of human history, poisoning—whether by accident or malice—was much more common than it is today. To protect against the threat, people turned to a variety of natural and man-made materials that were thought to expose toxic substances early warning systems prized for their life-saving potential.

In the Middle East, legends told of celadon dishes that would break or change their distinctive pale green color if they came into contact with poisoned food. According to Italian tradition, goblets of Venetian glass were thought to explode if filled with poisoned wine, while in Asia, silver chopsticks were believed todiscolor on contact with poison. (The latter myth had some basis in truth; poisons containing sulfur can speed the tarnishing of silver.) Claims about some charms went even further than detection. Fossilized shark’s teeth, thought to be dragon tongues, were dipped into food to purify it of poison. Other substances, such as agate, amethyst, and bezoars (hard objects found in the digestive tracts of animals), were believed to lessen the potency of or even destroy poison on contact.

Hornbill Spoon

The artifact above is a hornbill spoon, which, according to Malaysian legend, would change color, even turn black, in the presence of poison. Now on view in the Museum’s special exhibition The Power of Poison, this spoon was fashioned from the beak of a Rufous Hornbill (Buceros hydrocorax), a large bird indigenous to the Philippines and characterized, like all hornbills, by a prominent casque or horny growth extending along the top of its head. (Imagine the spoon inverted.) It was collected by Laura Watson Benedict from the Bagobo people in Mindanao, Philippines, in the early 20th century and purchased by the Museum in 1910.

Hornbill, especially from the solid casque of the helmeted hornbill, has long been a popular material for carving and is often referred to as “ivory,” although it is something quite different. Ivory is made of dentin, the stuff of tusks and teeth, while hornbill is keratin, which makes up hair, nails, and, of course, horn. Although carved hornbill objects, from belt buckles to snuff boxes, are prized by antique collectors, modern trade is severely limited under the United Nations’ Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. All Asian hornbill species are currently threatened by hunting for their feathers and skulls, as well as by habitat loss due to logging and agriculture. 

Don't miss The Power of Poison exhibition before it closes, Sunday August 10. Buy Tickets here

This story is adapted from an article in the Spring 2014 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine. 

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