Friday mystery object #25


I think it may be time for a change of tack on the mystery object. In the museum I am often called upon to identify bits of animal used in anthropological artefacts and musical instruments, so here is something that I was presented with by my colleagues Drew and Helen who work in our store building:

Can you work out a) what is it, b) what animal bits it’s made from and c) where it’s from?

Put your answers in the comments section below and feel free to ask me questions about the object – I’ll do my best to respond.

Best of luck!

47 thoughts on “Friday mystery object #25

  1. The script on the end looks European (not necessarily Roman though).

    The end cap and one of the “chopsticks” inside look like they are made of Ivory. The metal binding looks like it is brass, it looks a bit rough (i.e. not very finely made).

    I think the two sticks inside may be used for measuring something.

    The body material I’m struggling with, is it a natural material which has been worked, or a composite material. I.e. were the white inclusions from one source and the continuous media from another?

    • The script on the end is indeed European – it’s a museum number and has nothing to do with the provenance of this object – sorry if that was misleading!

      The body material is natural and it has been worked, so the white material and the matrix are all from the same source.

  2. Well the writing on the end is probably just a curatorial log number?

    The end cap, yes I would go with ivory.

    The main body of the shaft, well, it would be much easier if I had a scalpel scraping, some acid and access to my mass spectrometer ;-)

    I’m struggling to think of a natural animal source of such sphericules, which as Ian suggests, look to be set in resin…..

    • You’d get a reaction with acid, but not a hugely fast one (depending on the pH and concentration of course). A standard dilute HCl test would yield an unexciting reaction.

  3. For the body I’m thinking of something scaly. The problem is it looks a bit too irregular to be something like fish skin. Other scaley things: lizards and reptiles. Just don’t seem right.

    Presumably talk of acid is about whether this material contains shell / bone which would be calcium carbonate and would react with acid. No reaction, so it is not bone or shell.

  4. I’d agree re ivory and brass (no kudos there) but the body looks like it is curved on one side… so I’m thinking some kind of large bird skin that’s been cured?
    As for it’s purpose… ho hum… a conductor’s baton in 2 pieces?

    Or shall I just scurry away now? :-)

    • Brass yes, but look at the quality of the workmanship – is it consistent with the use of a high cost product like ivory? As to the bird skin – it isn’t bird, although it is skin…

      I like the conductor’s baton suggestion for the purpose, but I’m afraid it’s not that. No scurrying away though – the mystery has not yet been solved!

    • Extant and recent origin, although I can’t identify it to species level because it is so heavily worked [Edit: that said, I can make a pretty good guess].

  5. I thought it looked like the kind of thing turned out for the 19th century tourist trade in India, when ivory was commonplace, sadly. So I consulted your father. He thinks it is a Japanese fan holder made of snakeskin and ivory or bone.

  6. For a second I read “the white material and the matrix are all from the same source.” as “this is a continuous anatomical layout that has been worked.” I fail.

    First instinct was snakeskin, but that inside is bone and there’s no part of a snake’s body with that much continuous ivory or bone. And then – that’s not snake skin, is it? It’s too irregular to be true scales.

    Is it from a non-squamatan reptile, maybe a Crocodilian?

    • Sorry – I should have been clearer – the white material in question is not referring to the end caps, but to the small whitish/green/blue inclusions in the body of the piece. The end caps are made from part of an unrelated species (ie. there is more than one species used in the construction).

      You’re right that it’s not snake skin (nor is it the skin of any reptile) – it is indeed too irregular to be true scales (good observation)…

      • Oh, you’re not helpful. In that you are helpful. I didn’t even read those inclusions as being white, but green, thanks to the matrix.

        I’ve just found out that people acquire leather from all sorts of animals – Google Image serach makes me think the texture’s wrong for anurans – I’m not ruling out a course skinned mammal right now, but I’m keeping my chips on the crocodile/alligator square.

  7. I’m looking at the brass fittings – it would be useful to know whether those are screw holes on the lower fittings. The top has a loop attached to it, suggesting it needs string or ribbon to attach it to something. That something could be a belt or wriststrap (as per fanholder) or it could be to tie it to something bigger. If the latter, I’m wondering whether the use might be nautical?

    Anyway, is it an object to be carried on the person?

    • That’s an excellent question – I’m not entirely sure if I am honest! However, I think that the end bits are separate. You have the right material, but I don’t think it would come from that species.

  8. I love how the name of the material derives from the French ‘chagrin’ (sorrow) which in turn is borrowed from Turkish ‘sağrı’ (the back of a horse) – when as all of us intermittent equestrians know, the back of a horse really does bring much sorrow for ones sensitive parts.

    With regards the use of the object, well it is clearly the over adorned holder of not just any old chopsticks, but ninja chopsticks used to dispatch samurai at close range over dinner.

    Phew, glad that’s sorted, it’s time for an ale!

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