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Anchorage Loan Conservation Project


Preserving Value

Yupik ivory pipe

Yupik pipe originial catalog record

close up of pipe

Museum records identified this object as a pipe from St. Lawrence Island. When it was brought to the conservation lab it appeared to be complete with an attached bowl and mouthpiece as pictured above. The walrus tusk stem is covered with incised images, described by NMNH Curator, Dr. Igor Krupnik as a sort of “field guide” to Bering Sea animals and hunting methods.

The catalog card notes that “no bowl” is included with the pipe, nor is there mention of a separate mouthpiece. Research into the background of walrus tusk pipes decorated with ‘scrimshaw’ designs suggest they were made for trade, and that ivory pipe bowls from the region were not shaped like the one attached to this pipe stem.

Careful examination of the pipe revealed that the mouthpiece and bowl differ in color and texture from the rest of the pipe stem. In fact it appears that an area at the end of the stem has been gouged out to accommodate the bowl, which was adhered in place with a now-oxidized nitrocellulose adhesive. The ivory in the cut area of the stem has not developed the same patina of age and wear as surrounding areas. The mouthpiece and bowl fit together in an awkward fashion. These observations, along with the catalog card documentation stating “no bowl”, suggests this object may very well be a pastiche and partial museum restoration, unfortunately undocumented.

x-ray of Yupik pipe Consultant Kingeekuk  with pipe E316794_SLI_Yupik_pipe_AT_01.jpg

To gain more information regarding the construction of the object a radiograph of the pipe was taken by Roland Cunningham of the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute. The x-ray revealed that the holes drilled through the bowl and pipe stem do not align. The drill holes in the stem begin at the ends but overlap only marginally in the center.

St. Lawrence Island consultant, Elaine Kingeekuk (above) was intrigued by the incised hunting scenes that covered the pipe stem. Elaine’s interest in the object was artistic while its identification as a pipe was unimportant to her. As pictured above, Elaine had to turn the pipe upside down to view the scenes in their proper orientation; another indication that the object may not have originally been intended as a pipe.

The accumulation of visual and documentary evidence, combined with consultations with project curators and native consultant Elaine Kingeekuk, led to the decision to remove the mouthpiece and bowl and to exhibit the stem for its incised hunting scenes. This way, the object would be presented more accurately; preserving what is most valued. Although separated, the mouthpiece and bowl will continue to be stored together after exhibit, to preserve the unique museum history of this object.

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