Two elk-antler and dentalium-shell purses

From Tsurai (Trinidad), California, North America
18th century AD

These two purses were perhaps the first of their type to be collected by Europeans. The miniature tusk-shaped shell, dentalium, was an important measure of wealth in northern California. The shells were very carefully graded, and given names reflecting their size. For the Yurok, who call dentalium tsik, between eleven and fifteen shells made a string, which was worth one slave. Further north on Vancouver Island, where the shells were more commonly found, five fathom-long strings were required to purchase a slave. The Yurok made baskets shaped like these purses. These were used in the Jump Dance, a world renewal ceremony performed annually.

The Nuu-Chah-Nulth on Vancouver Island gathered the shells using a broom made of bundled cedar bark splints, thrusting it into the beds at the end of a long pole. They traded the shells hundreds of miles south, to California, as well as into the Subarctic, Plateau and Plains regions. In the mythology of the Karok and Yurok, heroes called Great and Small Dentalium were deities, creating people and acorns, among other things.

These two purses were collected on George Vancouver's voyage in 1793.

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More information


J.C.H. King, First peoples, first contacts: (London, The British Museum Press, 1999)


Length: 17.000 cm
Length: 17.000 cm

Museum number

AOA Van 168;AOA Van 169


Gift of Sir A.W. Franks


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