Background

The history and tradition of argillite carving can be seen through the individual reflection of each piece. The Haida word for argillite is Kwawhlhal. Argillite is a type of rock that is transitional between slate and shale. The quarry site for Haida argillite is found on the Islands of Haida Gwaii also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands at the Slatechuck site. “Chuck” is the Chinook Jargon word for water, “saltchuck” means salty water and the literal meaning of “Slatechuck” is slate and water. 

In 1941, the Skidegate band obtained 43.81 acres of land surrounding and containing the Slatechuck quarry site for the sole use of the Skidegate people. Anyone wanting to visit the quarry site must obtain permission from the Skidegate band council prior to their visit. The actual material that the carvings are made out of is a unique and fragile material. When quarried the material contains a high concentration of water. The material is often kept wrapped in towels saturated with water to keep the material “soft” and easy to carve. When a carver goes to carve the piece, a mental picture has already been created in their mind. First, the material is cut into the approximate shape with a carpenter’s saw. Then the carving is “blocked out” while the carver makes sure that the design elements conform to the grain of the argillite. After the initial steps are completed, ornaments of high relief is added with a scriber, chisel, file and other tools. The carving is then filed and smoothed with sand paper or steel wool. In the past different tools were used for example, the smoothing and polishing of the piece was carried out with a dried sea sponge or dried sharkskin. The final finish that produces a dark glossy sheen is obtained by hand-rubbing or applying lamp black, loggers chalk, petroleum or black shoe polish.

Old argillite is an extremely fragile material. Changes in humidity, temperature, heat or applied light that is absorbed by the carving internally heat the object leave the carving at higher risk for damage. Many of the carvings that were collected long ago display chips and cracks which have resulted from poor handling, damage in transportation and poor environmental conditions. The carvings can be preserved only if they are cared for properly.

The Haida people have a long and rich past. Before contact with explorers, traders and settlers, they were divided into two moieties (family groups), the Raven and the Eagle. Each family had title to specific crests and symbols. Crests and symbols are representations of animals and supernatural beings known from the Haida past by the way of oral histories, legends, myths and stories. These crests and symbols are combined to tell stories. Some of the crests depicted in argillite carvings include: Raven, Killer whale, Grizzly bear, Black Bear, Hawk, Moon, Wasco, Dogfish, Thunderbird, Mountain Goat, Wolf, Eagle, Beaver, Five-finned Killer Whale, and Frog. The ability to declare an object as depicting Killer whale or Thunderbird does not come close to understanding an argillite carving .

When viewing each argillite carving, it is better to imagine the “Slatechuck” as being alive and fluid telling a story form the past through the eyes of its creator. Imagine a carver years ago holding a piece of argillte shaping it with cold metal tools, manipulating it into a master piece. The carved-beings, represented come alive. It is best to imagine these pieces reflecting the light of a colourful sunset, a bright sunrise or the flickering of fire flames at night or during the winter months. It is during these transformational times that the argillite comes alive to tell us a story, the story often lost, hidden or misunderstood that depicts a piece of the past that is the mystical and mysterious vision that is seen today.

History Of Argillite Styles

Argillite carvings have been created in a variety of forms including various styles of pipes, flutes, sinel figures, group figurines, circular dishes, platters, bowls, compotes (plate on a platter), poles, boxes, personal ornaments (amulets, labrets, medallions), models of Haida houses as well as models of Euro-American objects. Some argillite carvings are decorated with inlays of shell, metals, ivory, bone and other materials. These inlays accentuate various aspects of specific pieces. The sun casts clear copper rays, and a figure is able to stare out of a pair of shimmering abalone eyes.

In attempting to discuss and define the changing styles of argillite carving from the beginnings of their manufacture to their multiple contemporary forms, it must be realized that many of the works aquired from Haida individuals in the past were done so in a time very different than that of today. At the time contact between the Haida and Euro-American occurred, Haida ideas of “art” were very different from those of today. The past was known through oral histories, myths, and legends. It was through this period of drastic change that argillite art was created. The many changes are reflected in the changing styles portrayed in the argillite. These different styles can be interpreted as defining and depicting certain segments of time and the events occurring during their creation.

Argillite carvings have been created in a variety of forms including various styles of pipes, flutes, sinel figures, group figurines, circular dishes, platters, bowls, compotes (plate on a platter), poles, boxes, personal ornaments (amulets, labrets, medallions), models of Haida houses as well as models of Euro-American objects. Some argillite carvings are decorated with inlays of shell, metals, ivory, bone and other materials. These inlays accentuate various aspects of specific pieces. The sun casts clear copper rays, and a figure is able to stare out of a pair of shimmering abalone eyes.

In attempting to discuss and define the changing styles of argillite carving from the beginnings of their manufacture to their multiple contemporary forms, it must be realized that many of the works aquired from Haida individuals in the past were done so in a time very different than that of today. During the time of contact between the Haida and Euro-Americans, Haida ideas of “art” were very different from those of today. The past was known through oral histories, myths, and legends. It was through this period of drastic change that argillite art was created. The many changes are reflected in the changing styles portrayed in the argillite. These different styles can be interpreted as defining and depicting certain segments of time and the events occurring during their creation.

SFU’s Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology’s Argillite Collection

This collection contains four spectacular pieces that date from between the 1820’s to 1976. One of the more contemporary pieces is an argillite pole (see above, left). The pole was carved by Rufus Moody in 1974 and was donated to the museum by Dr. and Mrs. Green. The figures represented in the pole are as follows: Eagle, Mythical Bear, Bear with Salmon, Hawk with Killer Whale, and Bear with Killer Whale. The collection, also, includes a rectangular platter with bone and/or ivory inlays around its perimeter edges (see below, left). The centre of the platter depicts stylized European figures. Another piece in the collection is a representation of the sun (as shown below, centre). The sun was carved in 1976 by Ed Simeon. The piece includes the incorporation of carved bronze and silver inlay.This piece was collected by Reverend George H. Raley.  The smaller oval platter was carved circa 1990 and has shell inlay around the outer edge (see below, right). The figure represented is a dogfish head and a split image of a serpent.

The pictures below have been scanned from a variety of sources. Most pictures are borrowed from Simon Fraser Museum’s curator, Dr. B. Winter’s slide collection. The slides are representational of the different “periods” of argillite art that were described in The History of Argillite Styles page.

History and background information courtesy of the following sources:

Barbeau, N.1957 Haida Carvers in Argillite Bulletin no. 139 Anthropological series no. 38.\ Department of Northern Indian Affairs and National Resources National Museum of Canada Queen’s Printer and Controller of Stationary, Ottawa.

Drew, L., and D. Wilson 1980 Argillite Art of the Haida. Hancock House Publishers Ltd., Canada Gunn, M.D. 1967 Haida Totems in Wood and Argillite. Totem Poles series 3.

Macnair, P.L., and A.L., Hoover 1984 Haida Argillite Carving. Special publications no. 7 British Columbia Museum, Victoria. Harry Smith and Sons. Vancouver.

Sheenan, C. 1981 Pipes That Won’t Smoke: Coal That Won’t Burn. In, Rose Veighney (ed.). Haida Sculpture in Argillite. Itingell Printing Ltd., Winnipeg.

 

Photo images courtesy of: Simon Fraser University Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Web page origially by Charlene Mudry.
Adapted for AEM by Melissa Rollit, 2016.