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Ask MOA: What Is This Bone Tool?

Ask MOA: What Is It? is your opportunity to ask MOA Curators and Collections staff about an artwork or other mystery object at home that you’ve always wondered about. We select certain inquiries and objects to feature online.

This featured Ask MOA case is about a bone tool purchased in Estonia.

Question from Inquirer:

“Found in a second hand shop in Estonia, a modern replica—of what?—probably a souvenir. 24 cm long. Something like a ditch on one side, and a tiny hole. Made of bone, with leather. What is it?”

Answer from Sue Rowley:

This has us stumped—hopefully someone who reads this will be able to shed more light on it. Here is what we’ve found out so far.

Bone beamer made from caribou cannon bone. Dene. MOA Collection Na1607. Photo: Jessica Bushey.

This tool is fashioned from a bone—specifically, the metatarsal from the left hind leg of a deer. Metacarpel bones (front legs) and metatarsal bones (hind legs) are found on horses, deer, reindeer, sheep, goats, cattle and some other animals. They extend the length of the animal’s leg and are thought to be an evolutionary trait allowing these animals to run faster. They are commonly referred to as cannon bones. The groove and the small hole you can see are part of the natural bone—the hole is a foramen that carries blood vessels and nerves.

Awl made from a deer cannon bone. By Nlaka’pamux basket weaver Mandy Brown. MOA Collection Nd712. Photo by Derek Tan.

People around the world have used these versatile bones for many purposes for thousands and thousands of years. They are hollow and very strong. One common use for deer cannon bones was as awls. The end would be sharpened and used for basketry making or to pierce holes in skins and leathers so they could be sewn. They could also be split and used as scrapers or beamers to clean animal skins. Today, they are also used to polish and get the creases out of shoes made of cordovan leather, a highly prized leather made from horse skin.

This brings us back to your piece. It is not an awl as is has no sharpened point. Nor is it a scraper or a beamer—these are held using both hands, one of each end. It does not appear to be a polisher as these tend to have the natural oils still on them, the transference of the oil being one reason why they are able to smooth and polish the leather.

There are two design elements on the bone. The first is a double circle and dot motif. The circle and dot motif is found in many cultures around the world across many time periods. Just in the region of Estonia it is found on pieces dating to the Mesolithic, Viking and Medieval periods.  The second design is uncommon and it isn’t clear what it is or where it is from. It may be a design particular to the artist who created this piece.

The entire piece is beautifully crafted with a lovely embossed leather top. This top is particularly frustrating as it bears the signature of the maker and we have been unable to decipher it. The leather is attached to the bone with what appears to be braided sinew—a finishing touch indicating the care with which it has been made.  The sinew is either natural sinew from the tendons of a deer or synthetic sinew from manmade fibres.

At a guess we would suggest that this piece was made by a professional craftsperson. It may have been made as a revitalization of a traditional craft or have been created for a re-enactor. What a great find— thank you for sharing it with us.