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Creation Date

Late 19th to early 20th century






Walrus ivory tusk

Credit Line

Bequest of David P. Harris ('46), 2020

Accession Number



Feb 19, 1993 Bought by David P. Harris from Micheal E. Bernholz Antiques

Bought by Micheal E. Bernholz Antiques (Chapel Hill, NC, USA)

Owned by the Estate of Admiral Burton S. Hanson Jr

Signatures, Inscriptions, and Markings

Reverse: scrimshaw scene of two homes and fish or skins drying on a rack


This ivory cribbage board is most likely from the Bering Strait area of Alaska, originating from the Inuit culture. While ivory carving of walrus tusks or whale bones has been prevalent for hundreds of years, cribbage boards and other European subjects became popular during the Klondike Gold Rush in Alaska in 1869–99 (Fay, 2019). Ivory artifacts in the Old Bering Strait area have spanned from 100–1500, carrying many different meanings, whether religious or depicting scenes of everyday life (Fitzhugh et al., 2009: 18). These include scenes of daily tasks, as well as icons of sacred connections such as human faces and animal spirits of the sky and sea (Fitzhugh et al., 2009: 18). However, as European whalers and traders came into contact with the local Inuit populations in the late 19th to early 20th century, the old craft of ivory carving took on new forms and meanings in order to cater to the tastes of Westerners (Fair et al., 2006: 35). Customers included whalers, prospectors, missionary teachers, and collectors (Fair et al., 2006: 35). “Market art” took the form of traditional Inuit ivory carving and engraving and translated it to European subjects such as pipes, model ships, engravings on whole tusks, cribbage boards and nonfunctional copies of European objects such as knives and razors (Fair et al., 2006: 35). Inuit culture has been based in a trade reliant economic system before the arrival of Europeans. These incoming merchants from Canada and the United States brought new goods and a cash-based market with them (Fair et al., 2006: 35). Missionaries in the area promoted stable, cash-flowing occupations to the indigenous community, which included ivory carving for tourists and travelers (Fair et al., 2006: 35). Many older implements of traditional Inuit ivory carving survived through family heirlooms, such as bow drills and toolboxes (Fair et al., 2006: 35). Nome, specifically, became a hub for “market art”, and in 1945 ivory carving was even considered a full-time job (Fair et al., 2006: 35).

Cribbage is a game that was invented in the early 17th century in England, based on the card game noddy. The game includes a board (like the one we see here), pegs, and a deck of cards, and is usually played with 2-3 people. Our cribbage board at the BHSC is most likely one of these cribbage boards made in traditional Inuit styles and carved in walrus tusk, a combination of Inuit artistic styles and a European board game. These boards would have likely been marketed towards and sold to various Europeans traveling and settling in the Bering Strait area of Alaska in the 20th century (Ray, 1969: 23).

Ivory carving is a long-standing tradition within Inuit culture, spanning hundreds of years. Carving is usually done by men; tools for carving include adzes, hacksaws, metal files, small knives, sandpaper, and metal polish (Fitzhugh et al., 2009: 78). Walrus ivory carving dominates the Bering Strait islands, who rely on a seasonal abundance of walrus for food and ivory (Fair et al., 2006: 31). Ivory is highly valued due to its durability, yet it has high plasticity that allows it to be worked and carved (Fair et al., 2006: 34). There are several indications that the cribbage board at the BHSC is made of walrus ivory. The most significant of these is the pattern and color of the ivory as it is carved into deeper sections of the tusk. Walrus ivory is composed of three main layers: an outer enamel followed by a solid white layer, and a yellow, mottled pattern at its core (Fair et al., 2006: 34). This mottled inner core can be seen on the top half of the seal’s tail, facing upwards, and on the sides of the face. As described by the records of David Harris, the drilled hole across the tail could be used for stringing.

Seal hunting with harpoons was also very common (Fair et al., 2006: 32). Hunters would wait on ice sheets next to the small holes where seals would surface for air, then, drive the harpoon towards the seal through the breathing hole (Fair et al., 2006: 32). This is most likely the inspiration behind the seal body shaped board.

On the reverse of the board, we see scenes of everyday life of the Inuit. Scenes of the every day were very common on ivory carvings, such as fish drying on racks, cooking, or sealskins being pegged to the ground to dry (Fair et al., 2006: 33). The reverse of the seal cribbage board reveals two large tents or dwellings alongside a rack of drying fish or skins.

Fortunately, David Harris kept the receipt for this cribbage board in his records. He bought this “Fossil Ivory Scrimshaw Cribbage Board ca. 1840” on February 19, 1993, from Micheal E. Bernholz Antiques in Chapel Hill, NC. The receipt states that the board was from the estate of Admiral Burton Hanson Jr. (1907-1959). Admiral Hanson’s military history reveals a lot about his life, and where he may have acquired this board before selling it to Micheal Bernholz. His father, Burton Hanson (1851- 1922), was director of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1930, where he later became a Captain and then an Admiral in the US Navy. He married Margaret Fair Gillen, from Milwaukee, and they had one daughter, Elizabeth Fair Hanson, who was a Lieutenant in the Navy (1932-2013). Admiral Hanson is now buried in Arlington National Cemetery alongside his wife and daughter.

It is unclear when Admiral Hanson would have sold this board to Micheal E. Bernholz Antiques, or whether it was sold after his death. The date that appears on the handwritten receipt states that the cribbage board is from 1840; however, that is likely incorrect. Cribbage boards weren’t being produced in the Bering Strait area until post-1890, around the time of the Klondike Gold Rush in Alaska (1896-1899). Therefore, it is unclear how this cribbage board ended up in North Carolina, but it seems likely that it was bought post-1890, ended up in the estate of Admiral Burton S. Hanson Jr, was eventually sold to Micheal E. Bernholz Antiques, and finally to Kenyon alum David P. Harris in 1993. Harris’s collection was then donated to Kenyon’s Art History Department in 2020.

Some comparable walrus ivory cribbage boards from Alaska:

Iñupiaq cribbage board, 1900, 57 x 4 x 2.5 cm, walrus ivory tusk, National Museum of the American Indian 5/4277

Walrus Ivory Cribbage Board, 1905, walrus ivory tusk, Nome, Alaska, Maxwell Museum of Anthropology 89.5.10

Ivory cribbage board with scrimshaw designs, 1800s, walrus ivory tusk, Alaska, Gilcrease Museum 83.1217

Sources Consulted

Auger, Emily E. 2005. The Way of Inuit Art: Aesthetics and History in and beyond the Arctic. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland.

Bailey, Alfred M., and Russell W. Hendee. 1926. “Notes on the Mammals of Northwestern Alaska.” Journal of Mammalogy 7, no. 1: 9–28.

Fair, Susan W., and Jean Blodgett. 2006. Alaska Native Art: Tradition, Innovation, Continuity. Fairbanks, AK: University of Alaska Press.

Fay, Amelia. 2019. “Cribbage Board.” Canada History.

Fitzhugh, William W., Julia J. Hollowell, Aron Crowell, and Robert E. Ackerman. 2009. Gifts from the Ancestors: Ancient Ivories of Bering Strait. Princeton: Princeton University Art Museum.

Imperato, Eleanor M. 2017. Carving Life: Walrus Ivory Carvings from the Bering Sea. Bayside, New York; Manhasset, NY: QCC Art Gallery Press.

Ray, Dorothy Jean. 1969. Graphic arts of the Alaskan Eskimo, vol. 4. Washington, D.C.: Indian Arts and Crafts Board, US Department of the Interior.