April 10, 2014

Object in focus: A mug made from a walrus

The journey from walrus to mug is actually shorter than you might think, as a few objects in the Burke's collection show.

First, the mug.

Photo credit: Richard Brown Photography
Object ID: Cat. No 1-2177
Gift of Lucille Christ

This mug was found in the mid-1950s when some children were digging in a backyard in Seattle's Laurelhurst neighborhood, but the mug probably originated in Alaska over 100 years ago.

Around the turn of the 20th century, mugs like this were made by Alaskan Native carvers to sell to tourists. This mug was most likely sold or traded to someone in Alaska who then brought it down the coast to Seattle. From there, the mug either got lost or thrown away and became buried.

After the mug was found, it was eventually donated to the Burke's archaeology collection, where it lives today.

But what about the walrus connection?

This mug is actually made of walrus bone—and is less "carved" than you might think. In fact, the cup itself is a walrus tusk socket. Even the little handle is natural. It's the front part of a walrus cheekbone.

Some specimens from the Burke's mammalogy collection help illustrate how this works:



Removing the tusk creates a natural cavity in the skull, as you can see in last two photos. Still, it took some real creativity and ingenuity get from there to the finished product.
Nature and culture can indeed intersect in surprising ways!

See the mug in person

The walrus mug and 2,046 other items are featured in the Burke's new exhibit, Imagine That: Surprising Stories and Amazing Objects. Come check it out from April 12–Oct. 26, 2014, and let us know on Facebook or Twitter which object amazed you the most.
By Andrea Michelbach, Communications