Engraved Porpoise Tooth, mid-19th century

<< >>
The short length and slender proportions of this carved tooth indicate that it came from the mouth of a porpoise rather than a sperm whale. Its rough, dark and mottled surface was badly prepared for the craftsman’s sharpened tool, rendering the details of the carving difficult to see clearly.
The obverse depicts a man standing inside a circular rope motif; his costume is reminiscent of a Near Eastern or Asian warrior, with padded pants and low hanging blouse and hair in a bun. The surface of the tooth above the figure has horizontal striations, almost like a metal file was applied. On the reverse is another man surrounded by an oval rope motif; he wears a more traditional Western waistcoat and holds a cane in his right hand. Atop his head is a tightly-wrapped turban.
The pinprick method for preparing the line infill is evident, suggesting that the original drawings from which these were derived was in a periodical of the period. Perhaps one day the source for these enigmatic figures will be identified.
Currently not on view
Physical Description
tooth, whale (overall material)
overall: 4 1/2 in x 1 1/2 in x 7/8 in; 11.43 cm x 3.81 cm x 2.2225 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
Gift of Dr. & Mrs. Arthur M. Greenwood.
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
Cultures & Communities
Data Source
National Museum of American History


Add a comment about this object