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
Object Name
tooth, whale
scrimshaw tooth, whale
scrimshaw tooth, porpoise
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
Cultures & Communities
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
Gift of Dr. & Mrs. Arthur M. Greenwood.
Additional Media

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