Monday, 4 March 2013

WCC 9/52 - Mammoth Ivory Carving

A strange title for the blog post you may think, have I been carving huge chucks of illegal elephant ivory? Actually no, this is the woolly four legged kind of mammoth, not the very large kind (well OK, a woolly mammoth is very large as well, but let's not go there...)
This is my weekly critter for the challenge for last week and it is definitely different! This is quite a long blog post, but I hope you will find it an interesting one! (Apologies for the poor quality of some of the photos!)
A while ago I booked to go on a one day workshop at the British Museum in London. The workshop was called Mammoth Ivory Carving and is part of the events during the Ice Age Art special exhibition which is currently on. I had always wanted to go to a workshop at the museum and this one seemed a perfect subject to me. Interestingly after I posted on Facebook that I had booked the workshop, Helen Foster-Turner, a fellow metal clayer friend, posted that she had also booked it. On arriving last Saturday in total there were 12 of us on the workshop, and I was even more surprised when Penny Akester, yet another metal clay friend walked in! 25% metal clayers must say something about the workshop - though I am not sure what!!
Our instructor for the day was Master Craftsman Wulf Hein from Germany, who has been replicating Ice Age artifacts for 25 years, and his work has provided important insights into the techniques and artistry of Ice Age people. Most of Wulf's work is for museums. We were to work with a piece of mammoth ivory using flint tools to carve our very own unique creation.
Wulf started the day by telling us about the tools that were used, showing us some of his wonderful carvings, and demonstrating how the flint was knapped to make the tools. We also saw a fascinating short video of Wulf making a replica carving which covered the entire carving process. He then gave us each two tools that he had already prepared. They are in the top photo, on the left is a burin, and in the middle a blade. We were warned to take care as the blades were as sharp as razor blades, but that there was a ready supply of plasters in case of accidents!! Thankfully no one need them :) On the right in the top photo is my small rod of mammoth ivory, and we were all set!
Helen and Penny, above, hard at work!
We had a lot of laughs...

...and of course lots of serious carving time!
It was interesting that Jill Cook, the curator of the exhibition was with us most of the day, and someone asked her whether it was thought that carving was a solitary or social activity in Ice Age times. She commented that when she came back into the room earlier, we were all in silence and totally absorbed in our carving, and she did think that maybe the carving was more of a solitary activity, but the carvings were then used for more social, perhaps story telling, activities.  

Work began at one end of the piece of ivory, carefully carving away using the flint tools. When we needed a different shape tool, maybe another burin or a pointed drill tool, Wulf simply made it by knapping a new one for us.

We worked with the ivory wet as it is easier to carve, we each had a glass of water to use but apparently saliva works just as well! Can you guess what it is yet?

Gradually the shape started to appear, and we found out that Ice Age people had tough hands! It was not long before I realised I had a blister but a strip of leather soon eased the problem. 

As the carving took shape there comes a point when it needs to be separated from the rest of the rod of ivory.

For my carving this meant creating a V shape for the tail.

To do this I had to use the point of the tool at the bottom of the photo below - it was a long slow process! Working the V shape in on each side of the rod until...

...eventually I managed to separate them! I know the photo below is blurred but it took me about an hour and a half to do this process so you are getting the photo regardless!!!! :) There was a definite sense of achievement in splitting the two pieces!!

When Wulf had demonstrated the flint knapping at the start of the day he said if we wanted to have a go we only had to ask, so of course, I had to have a try, and it was good to have a break from carving.
First the stone is prepared by gently rounding off the top edge with a smaller stone. To actually remove the flake of stone from the core we used an antler baton and a rough hewn wooden mallet.

The flint core is held firmly between the legs... easier said than done! You will note that I really needed a lower chair as my feet were hardly touching the ground!! The antler baton is held at the correct angle on the top edge of the flint core...

...and then you swing the wooden mallet down hard... hit it! Yes, well, that is not a thing which came naturally to me, to swing a hammer straight at myself - lol. I was not really hitting the antler hard enough...

... as you can tell by the 'is that it?' expressions looking at the small flake I produced! Still at least I did get some flakes on my several tries... the photo below the four large top tools are the ones Wulf made and the five small ones below were my efforts. He was kind enough to say that mine would be good for small details, and that my triangular one in the middle was a very good arrow head though!

Anyway, back to the carving. I carried on and did some more refining in the time that was left and below is my final effort for the day. This was about 5 hours of carving to get it to this far and it needs more refining, smoothing and polishing now.

It is interesting that the piece of ivory I have left looks more like an old bit of wood with paint on it than mammoth ivory that is thousands of years old!

In case you are wondering the mammoth ivory we used came from Siberia. One fully grown tusk can weight up to 200kg and it is estimated that there may be around 150 million dead mammoths frozen in the Siberian tundra.
Here is the final photo I took at the workshop of my efforts for the day.

I shall do a bit more work to the carving to finish it, and then will post another photo.
Did you guess what it supposed to be?
It is a little bird, an Ice Age swallow maybe... :)
And here is my weekly poem to accompany the critter.  
Leaning to carve
As people of old
Knapping flint tools
To carefully hold
Out of the ivory
Creatures unfold
And we understand more
of that Ice Age so cold
If you are interested in seeing a little more about the Ice Age exhibition do have a look at this video.
All in all it was a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening day and I shall be looking out for more workshops at the British Museum.
Have fun!
Joy x
The final finishes!!!
I refined the tail, added an aged look by rubbing in some earth, and then polished it up with a piece of leather. In total it took me about 8 hours to make I think - makes me really appreciate modern tools!!


  1. What an amazing opportunity you had Joy! A once in a lifetime experience, and a wonderful little swallow! Can't wait to see what you do with the rest of the ivory.

  2. A wonderful and interesting blog-post, thank you for giving such a detailed description.

    I must confess that I am very envious and would have loved to have attended the workshop - but your description is a very good compensation! :>)


Related Posts with Thumbnails