The Art Medium Bone

The practice of rendering bone into a work of art dates back to the prehistoric past. Bone carving has been associated with many civilizations around the world that favored it as an art medium. Art works featuring animal bones were typically associated with ceremony, ritual, and religion. Artisans sometimes made cuts in the bone or carved intricate designs into it. Bone may have been fashioned into ornaments for the home as well as jewelry worn by men, women, and children. Artisans developed many techniques for working with bone to render it into their desired forms or to employ their patterned designs.

Scrimshaw is one of the most widely known types of bone art. Aside from bone, artisans–often sailors or whalers–would use ivory, as well, to carve the natural material or to decorate it with scrollwork or engravings. Scrimshaw material was usually a byproduct of marine life. The art of scrimshaw was favored by whalers as a pastime during their long voyages, some of which could last several years while they hunted for whales in the far-off southern seas. The bones of baleen and sperm whales were some favorite types of bone used by scrimshaw artists.

Historians assert that the practice of scrimshaw dates to roughly the mid-1700s aboard voyaging whale ships. The practice continued until whaling became banned. Artisans, known as scrimshanders, often employed common tools to form their designs. Items like sailing needles or small knives were used to make elaborate designs. These designs might reflect the likeness of a fellow sailor or a sweetheart. Some depicted marine scenes such as islands, whales, or ships. Scrimshaw is not widely practiced today and those who do work in the form use alternate material instead of ivory or bone. Many of the best examples of scrimshaw are housed in museums. Scrimshaw artifacts are extremely collectible today.

Ancient artisans during the prehistoric era favored mammoth bones and tusks for carving or forming into jewelry. Many native cultures the world over employed bone for wearing as jewelry. These roughly-hewn ornaments might have a spiritual component that connected the human who wore it to an animal spirit. Native Americans often wore the bones of animals for reasons of ritual and religion. Moreover, bone could be fashioned into functional items needed by the culture. Fishing hooks and spear tips, for instance, have been made from bone by various tribes like the Maori of New Zealand. In many parts of the world, native cultures still use bone to make tools and objects of art.