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A Scrimshaw Skull in Whales Exhibition

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A curious confluence of history, industry, and art can be seen in the skull of a rough-toothed dolphin, Steno bredanensis, featured in the special exhibition Whales: Giants of the Deep. The 19.5-inch-long skull is nearly covered with scrimshaw—engraved and pigmented images—of flowering trees, a butterfly, flags, ships, a turret, and a harlequin pattern along the mandible.

Click on the image for a closer look. 

Museum scrimshaw skull entire
Catalog no. 90092
© AMNH/D. Finnin

It is an especially large and unusual example of the distinctive art form that flourished along with the whaling industry in the 19th century.

Here is a close-up of the teeth, with a harlequin pattern along the snout and lower jaw. 

Museum Scrimshaw Skull teeth
Catalog no. 90092
© AMNH/Elizabeth Nunan

The origin of this piece is unknown, but it was created sometime between 1750 and 1850, likely circa 1825 based on the flags depicted. While earlier examples have been found, the art form is primarily associated with the heyday of hunting whales for fuel—blubber oil and the cleaner-burning spermaceti oil—until these were supplanted by hydrocarbons extracted from the earth. American whaling peaked in 1853, when 8,000 whales were killed in one year.

Click on the image for a closer look. 

Museum scrimshaw skull back
Note the detailed engraving of sailing ships on the back of the 19.5-inch-long dolphin skull, which you can see in Whales: Giants of the Deep. 
© AMNH/Elizabeth Nunan

Scrimshaw developed as a pastime for whalers who had plenty of idle moments at sea on voyages that sometimes lasted for years. Broadly defined, the term refers to any artifacts and tools made from teeth, tusks, or bones of marine animals, including whales, walruses, and, as in the example above, dolphins (a type of toothed whale). But scrimshaw is usually more narrowly associated with the delicate engravings on these same materials, augmented with black and sometimes colored pigments.

This scrimshaw skull came to the Museum as part of the Warren Natural History Collection, which was purchased in 1906 by banker and Museum Trustee J. Pierpont Morgan. The collection had been put together by Dr. John Collins Warren (1778–1856) and is best known for the Warren Mastodon, a massive fossil skeleton now on display in the Paul and Irma Milstein Hall of Advanced Mammals on the fourth floor.

Warren Mastodon

This post is adapted from an article in the Fall 2013 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine. 

See more whale-related artifacts in Whales: Giants of the Deep, on view through January 5, 2014.