Carved Horn Spoons

Carved Horn Spoons


NA2398: Horn Spoon

Tlingit, ca. mid-19th century – early 20th century

Northwest Coast, Alaska, United States of America

Horn (likely Dall sheep or Mountain goat), metal nails

21 x 6.8 x 16 cm*

Purchased with the Thomas Harris Powers Memorial Fund for the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 1914


NA4266: Carved Horn Spoon

Tlingit, ca. mid-19th century – early 20th century

Northwest Coast, Alaska, United States of America

Horn (likely Dall sheep or Mountain goat), metal nails

33 x 8.5 x 23 cm

Collected by W. S. Sutton for George Gordon on behalf of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 1916



Upon initial inspection of the two selected spoons from the Penn Museum collection, one immediately becomes struck by the intricacy of carving that adorns the handles. Distinctive from the large, utilitarian wooden spoons, otherwise known as shéen in the Tlingit language, the carved spoons likely served a ceremonial role in distinctive social functions.  The animal motifs along the spoon handles and underneath the curved bottom of the “Carved Horn Spoon” (labeled NA4266) reinforce this observation. The handles comprise approximately half of the entire length of the carved spoons, and their careful delineation of animal motifs dominates the viewer’s attention. Each figuration is carved in shallow relief, and the handles appear almost two-dimensional in their design.

Visually projecting outwards as they meet at the central apex of their respective horn handle, the carved handles exhibit a symmetry that enhances the overall sense of balance created by the larger S-curve of each spoon. Their ovoid forms appear to overlap with one another, creating an interaction between the figures that suggests they inhabit a shared space. In the second object entitled “Carved Horn Spoon” (labeled NA4266), four layers of figures are depicted along the carved handle. At the base of the spoon, a raven appears to be emerging from the mouth of an eagle. Described by Hillary Stewart as the “most important of all creatures to the coast Indian peoples,” the raven was heralded as the ‘cultural hero’ of the Northwest Coast, represented in mythological folklore as peopling the Earth in addition to providing fire, water, light, lakes and trees to the world.[1] The figure’s long, straight beak and tongue are characteristic markers of the raven, and the placement of hands alongside its wings signifies the animal’s ability to transform into human form. Above the raven rests what is likely an eagle, identifiable through its shorter beak, which concludes in a strong downward curve. Despite the ambiguity of its features, the eagle’s heavy placement in Northwest Coast art makes it likely that this figure can be identified as an eagle. Above the figure lies a row of four human heads, which stare in opposing directions with widened eyes and opened mouths, and concluding the handle is what appears to be a mountain goat.

While there are an abundance of figures that populate the carved horn handle, the selection and placement of these abstracted motifs should be considered far from random or generalized. According to David Katzeek, a Tlingit clan leader and scholar, “our families’ histories are carved on these spoons. They show how important it is for Tlingit people to know who they are and how intricately woven the culture of the Tlingit people is.”[2] Rendered from oral histories, family-owned myths, and larger legends, both spoons likely contain special significance for the cultures that produced them. Due to the undocumented character of their acquisition by the Penn Museum, the extent of available information and literature regarding each spoon remains remarkably sparse. In the case of the first object titled “Horn Spoon” (labeled NA2398), the object was purchased from a dealer, W.S. Sutton, by the then-director of the museum George Gordon. In his correspondences with the museum director, Sutton restricted his assessment of value to the purely visual aspects of each of his pieces, neglecting to record or even consider any contextual information that might contribute to a better understanding of the object as a whole. [3]

The inherent existence of Tlingit cultural values within the chosen figuration becomes extended further within the materiality and treatment of both objects. Part of a culture that according to Anne-Marie Victor-Howe “treat their traditional food animals and plants as sacred,” the creation of intricate reliefs on spoons made from mountain goat horn (yéts’ shál in Tlingit) and sheep horn (leineit shál) reflects how this “same attitude [of reverence towards nature and animals] led them to create and use beautiful utensils with which to serve and eat their food.”[4] The elongated curve of each spoon, which extends from the base of the spoon to its apex, complements this aesthetic concern. However, its impracticality of form negates the possibility that this object was intended for purely utilitarian purposes. The object would have been too uncomfortable to hold during meals, and the handle’s sharply terminating curve, coupled with the widened width of the base, indicates that each spoon could have only been used in the consumption of liquids. The abstracted motif of a raven underneath the base of “Carved Horn Spoon” (labeled NA4266) indicates that these liquids were likely of lower temperatures. A higher heat would have degraded the depicted raven, and the careful delineation of its features indicates that these spoons were treated with cautious care.

The process in making each spoon was a considerably arduous procedure, and it echoed the same care exhibited in the selection of each animal motif. The bowl of a spoon was made by first softening a horn in boiling water before splitting its broad base length-wise. Typically the base was hollow, allowing for greater ease in splaying it out before further softening the horn in oil. The object would then be lashed into a wooden mold that shaped the bowl, and once dry it was released, cut and rounded to form the final bowl shape. The narrower top of the horn would usually curve away from the bowl enough to form a handle, creating a continuous S-curve of which both selected spoons above clearly exhibit.[5]

As demonstrated by the complexity of these objects, carved horn spoons acted as important indicators of the customs practiced within Tlingit culture. Highlighting the intersection of the utilitarian and the ceremonial, the spoons chosen for this exhibition constitute a microcosmic element of this community’s cultural heritage, and their inclusion provides the viewer with an observational introduction into Tlingit life.


-Joseph Isaac


For further information, see:

-Susan A. Kaplan and Kristin J. Barsness. Raven’s Journey; The World of Alaska’s Native People. Philadelphia: University Museum, 1986.

-Anne-Marie Victor-Howe. Feeding the Ancestors; Tlingit Carved Horn Spoons. Cambridge: Peabody Museum Press, 2007.

-Interviews between Anne-Marie Victor-Howe and David Katzeek, 2003.

-Hillary Stewart. Looking at Indian Art of the Northwest Coast. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979.

-University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Archives. Correspondence between W. S. Sutton and George Gordon, 1912-1916.

* All measurements are given as length x width x height.

[1] Stewart, Hillary. Looking at Indian Art of the Northwest Coast, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979), 57.

[2] Victor-Howe, Anne-Marie. Interview with David Katzeek, 2003.

[3] Archives of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Correspondence between W. S. Sutton and George Gordon, January 13, 1915.

[4] Victor-Howe, Anne-Marie. Feeding the Ancestors; Tlingit Carved Horn Spoons, (Cambridge: Peabody Museum Press, 2007), 4.

[5] Victor-Howe, Anne-Marie, Feeding the Ancestors, 8-9.


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