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Wooden grease dish or bowl


Length: 26.000 cm

Gift of Sir Joseph Banks (1790)


Room 26: North America

    Wooden grease dish or bowl

    Haida, before 1787 AD
    From northern British Columbia, North America

    This dish would have been used for serving or eating rich foods such as oolachen (candlefish) grease, the butter-like condiment eaten with smoked salmon, particularly at feasts or potlatches celebrating the rank and lineage of chiefs. The bowl is in the form of a human figure with a human hawk-billed face, human feet and wing or flipper-like arms. Even thought it was probably already old when collected in 1787, the bowl still exudes oil.

    It was collected by George Dixon, the armourer with Captain James Cook on his third voyage in 1776-80. In 1787 Dixon undertook a voyage on the Queen Charlotte looking for sea otter pelts to sell in China, and made a small ethnographic collection on the way for Sir Joseph Banks, a British Museum trustee.

    His ships name is now used for the Queen Charlotte Islands, still known by their Haida inhabitants as Haida Gwaii.

    This bowl is traditionally assumed to have been collected by Dixon from the Haida, perhaps from the village of Kiusta. However, the design of the eyes suggests a Tsimshian (mainland) origin, and the band-like form of the mouth is more similar to Tlingit examples from Alaska.

    This was the first object of northern Northwest Coast art to be engraved and published, in Dixon's account A Voyage Round the World... (London, 1789). Bill Holm's Northwest Coast Indian Art (Seattle, 1965), a primer for artists and art historians, also illustrates the bowl as an icon for this style, first made famous by F. Boas in Primitive Art (Oslo, 1927).

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


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    On display: Room 26: North America

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