Bone and Horn Simple Adornments

Features Issue 68 Jul, 2010
Text by Utsav Shakya

Records from the earliest civilizations show that humans have always been interested in adorning themselves and their surroundings with beautiful things. With limited choices and the environment that they lived in, the bones, horns and even teeth of their daily kills became accepted adornments. Animal teeth and bone carvings were worn around the neck and in many cases were what differentiated the leader from the pack. The need to look and feel different still continues to this day. And the prehistoric favorites for adornment, bone and horn accessories are still very popular.

Bone artwork has a very special feel about it, unlike anything else you will ever experience. Its milky white appearance and soft flowing lines are just the start of what makes bone carvings so special. Bone is soft and warm to the touch yet the finish can be made to resemble polished glass. A well-crafted carving seems to blend with one’s body and become a part of you, especially when worn against your skin. Bone types and sizes vary greatly and come from a variety of animals. The range covers many styles from very traditional pieces to more contemporary designs such as beautiful carvings.

Each piece is crafted by hand so even if the artisan is following the same design, no two pieces can
ever be the same. Rest assured then that each piece of bone or horn carving that you possibly buy is one of a kind. The feeling of owning something unique that nobody else can own is quite a good feeling in itself. With time, bone artwork has only expanded and been improvised on to include exotic inlays of shells and/or precious stones. The range and variety of bone carved products is staggering.

Bones are also often used in combination with leather and/or beads. In many cases special kinds of beads are also made from bones. These are mostly popular as bead necklaces which can be homogeneous in arrangement or as an attractive combination of differently colored beads. The combination of leather and bone or bone and beads is something that has been seen both in bone artwork that are used as display items and also as fashionable accessories such as for wrist bands, necklaces and the like.

Leather and bone, for obvious reasons are a popular combination that many designers continue to exploit for their benefit. Even now, in high fashion, it is not entirely surprising to see that mankind’s earliest accessories are still in demand. Top clothes designers still use faux bones as accessories or a part of the clothes even to give their couture pieces that extra edge.

But it is not just show pieces and accessories that bone carving is limited to. Bones have also been used for enhancing an antique look for décor. Huge chairs, grand beds and wooden chests; the addition of a centerpiece of carved bone to these, often in combination with stones or beads adds significant value to the work in addition to giving it an exotic feel.

A Prehistoric Origin and the Spread of Bone Artwork

According to the Bead History Time Line in “The History of Beads” by Lois Sher, animal teeth and bones were made and worn as early as 38,000 B.C.E. Due to the scarcity of and ease of recognizing the essential raw materials, beads became a major trading commodity.  In much later years, the demand for personal adornment helped to open trade networks in western Asia and the Mediterranean as early as 6,500 B.C.E.  Apparently, the world’s best bead deal was $24/- worth of beads traded to the Native Americans for Manhattan Island.

A pricier yet extremely popular raw material that was and is still used in bone and horn artwork is ivory. The sources of this are mostly elephants and rarely, the now extinct Woolly Mammoth. The Woolly Mammoth lived from about 2 million years ago to about 10,000 years ago during the last ice age. This was after dinosaurs were extinct. These magnificent animals were from 9 to 15 feet tall with either straight or curved tusks up to 15 feet long. Because they are extinct, there is no ban on international trade of tusks or items made with mammoth ivory.

Ivory is a dental substance, placed by chemists between bone and horn. Obtained mostly from the tusks of elephants, the material lends itself eminently to engraving and carving and from time immemorial has been a medium of artistic expression. India, with its large elephant population, has long been a center of ivory work. Vedic texts include it among the noblest of arts. King Solomon of Biblical times is said to have bought Indian ivory and King Darius of Persia used ivory decorations in his palace in the 6th century B.C.E. Along with muslin and frankincense, ivory ranked among the foremost products sought from India by kings and courts of other countries in ancient times.

Ivory craft skills are spread almost all over India, with a number of regions developing their own specialties. The ivory carvers of Bengal, Jaipur and Delhi are known for their engraved models of ‘ambari hathi’ or processional elephant, bullock carts, caskets, book covers, sandals and palanquins. Orissa has had a tradition of offering ivory inlaid furniture to the temple at Puri. Miniature shrines with delicate pillars and intricate relief floral work, caskets depicting scenes from myths and legends and images of gods and goddesses, including Christian icons and symbols, have been a tradition in Kerala and Karnataka.

The Transformation from Bones to Art
Our interest in how animal bones, horns and teeth end up as such intricate artwork took us a little beyond the Balaju bypass where the Mana Maiju temple and the popular go-cart racing grounds are located. The owner of the Eco-Pendant Craft shop in Thamel, Shankar Thapa led us to a very modest shack where the actual work was done.

The smell of bones put in storage hit us like a bag of cement. As we recovered from the strong odor, we were hit for a second time with an absolutely necessary reality check. As if the sight of sixteen grown men, some with their families living in a single room which also functioned as their cooking space was not enough food for thought, we were offered cold drinks as soon as we stepped in. A sizable store room, from where the aforementioned smell was coming from was just next to the sleeping quarters of the craftsmen. The men, who were mostly Muslims from the Nepali Tarai regions of Birgunj and Bhairawa, had learnt the craft either from other artisans who had worked at such factories in India or had themselves picked up the work during short stints as cheap labor in the border towns.

“The bones that come in all shapes and sizes are first cut into the required sizes depending on what they are intended for. The straight, middle portions of the bones are easier to work with and the sides are often thrown away. Smaller bone pieces generally require more work than larger pieces,” informs Thapa. “Brown and black bones are generally more expensive than white bones. The longer pieces are more difficult to find, and therefore are more expensive. Horn bone is less expensive than internal bone and is used less frequently.”

Storage is not a problem as besides the stench, the bones do not rot and can withstand heat and moisture for years without any damage to them. After the size is right for the piece to be made, the design work is started by another craftsman. A fast-moving conveyer belt-like device is used to first hone the bones into a more suitable shape. A drill-like tool, locally known as Buluwa which has a thick needle shaped rotating bit is used to carve designs on the bone surface. Different bits are used for different designs similar to the use of different grades of brushes in painting.

“The pieces are then soaked in boiling water along with controlled amounts of Potash or Hydrogen Peroxide according to color requirements. The addition of more potash to the boiling water, gives the pieces a darker color. The Peroxide gives the pieces the more popular milky white, ivory-like color,” adds Thapa. The final polishing is done again, a process called buffing by the local craftsmen that gives the pieces its popular glaze and softness. The products are then ready to be sent out to the shops.

The workers are paid on a commission basis which means that for a certain amount of work done or a certain large object made, they are paid a certain amount of cash. Upon commenting that the pay is obviously modest, Thapa informs us that the workers are actually paid quite well. The reason the workers live in such modest accommodations turns out to be a common one; the workers send money back home to their villages where it puts bread and butter on the table for large joint families. In a way, the harsh irony of such artistic brilliance amidst such a humbling environment makes the pieces even more desirable.

Bone Artwork in Nepal
The origin of bone carvings in Nepal can be traced back to the Rana era. The Ranas of Nepal were famous for their extravagant hunting trips on which they invited foreign dignitaries too, often using the trips as diversions for the dignitaries from the more pressing problems of the country. The horns of rhinos and the tusks of elephants killed during these hunting expeditions together with tiger skins were often gifted to Indian royalty. These tusks were used by skilled Indian artisans to be shaped into intricate works of art. Some would eventually come back as gifts to the Rana rulers. Such traditions later flourished into illegal poaching of animals for their horns, tusks and skin. Most were sold in their raw forms while Indian artisans living in Nepal and even Nepali artisans who had learned the work from their neighboring artists, carved them into exotic and elaborate works of art which were sold legally and illegally to foreigners at exorbitant prices.

Besides elephant tusks and rhino horns, yak bones are another raw material that gained popularity amongst tourists. The exclusiveness of yaks to this area makes the yak bone and pieces made out of it very expensive and most sought after in European and Middle Eastern markets. The killing of yaks is now illegal, but that has not stopped a small number of shops in the valley from selling yak bone ornaments.

In present day Nepal, yak, tiger, rhino and elephant hunting is strictly prohibited and punishable by law and so most of the bones and horns come from buffalos after they are killed for their meat. These are mostly used in the manufacture of beads. Bead accessories are immensely popular amongst the local youth. Shops in and around Thamel and also in the formerly hippie-inhabited Freak Street, near the Basantapur Durbar Square area are filled with fashionable accessories made out of animal bones. These are mostly bead necklaces with varying sizes and types of beads used, a wide array of pendants in all shapes and sizes and other pieces such as key rings, belt buckles, miniature models of Gods and Goddesses and even pens; all made out of bone and horn. Necklaces and pendants can also be made to order and the overseas market for these have proved to be lucrative.

But besides making economic sense both locally and as a promising export to overseas markets, promoting and encouraging bone and horn carving work also plays an important role in making sure that the art and culture of the region with an origin that dates back to prehistoric times, is not only realized but is passed on from one generation to the next. If only the message were to be passed on as beautifully as an etching in bone.

Bone & hone products courtesy:
Echo Product Crafts, Thamel Marg 60, Thahity, Kwabahal.
Ph. 4218489