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Chukchi: Walrus Bone Carving (a Unique Craft)

Chukchi men in their free time from catching food to eat used to engage in walrus bone carving creating original products.

The Chukchi were (and still are) excellent carvers. Walrus tusks are in high demand, as well as bones of other animals. Chukchi used a variety of natural materials – whalebone, mammoth ivory, whale tooth, tortoise shells, bones of wild and domestic animals … In the old days Chukchi used only stone knives for carving, and later – steel knives. Since approximately 1920s Chukchi began using drilling machines to achieve greater detail in their creations.

Walrus. 1930s. Walrus tusk

Walrus. 1930s. Walrus tusk

The history of carving from bone and tusk goes back at least two millennium; and the items found in cemeteries are not inferior to the 20th century sculptures.

Besides the quality of the material itself Chukchi paid special attention to the animal, because they revered many large animals and consequently parts of those animals. Creations from the bones and tusks of animals were attached a special meaning in the belief system of the Chukchi (sacred amulets and charms). Of course, young children perceived these figures as ordinary toys and play with them.

Especially valuable are products made of hollow bones and horns: salt shakers, horns for drinks and tobacco pipes.

Lakhtak (bearded seal). 1920s. Walrus tusk

Lakhtak (bearded seal). 1920s. Walrus tusk

Starting around the 1930s and 1940s the figurines of individual animals begin to give way to sculptural compositions with several figures. The animalistic and sacral meaning of such sculptures is fading away, and primitivism in bone carving gives way to the creations of high art.

This is due to the fact that in the 1920s the Soviet state was provided support to Chukchi carvers, which included sending to Chukotka professional artists and teachers of art, who helped develop the Chukchi talents.

This gave an impetus to the development of this craft and, in modern language, the establishment of the school of Chukchi artistic carvers. Among the carvers females too are beginning to appear.

Chukchi: Walrus Bone Carving (a Unique Craft)

The development of carving art is supported by emergence of new forms:

The invention of Chukchi carvers of the 20th century - deity Peliken, 1960s. Walrus tusk

The invention of Chukchi carvers of the 20th century – deity Peliken, 1960s. Walrus tusk

With the creation of the school of carvers, craftsmen begin to sign their work. Before that, all the pieces have been anonymous.

Carvers could incredibly depict in their compositionsthe world of the North, including the activities of daily life, hunting.

Sculptural group "Bear hunting with a spear", 1965, by Huhutan. Walrus tusk

Sculptural group “Bear hunting with a spear”, 1965, by Huhutan. Walrus tusk

Of course, in carving Chukchi were not limited to walrus tusk, they also carved from the bones of other animals such as the mammoth, as well as on wood, but carving on walrus bone is the most artistic.

 

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Photos – Private collection of V. Tishkov / Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology

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