Skip to Content
Important globular shaman’s rattle with symmetrical design elements - Donald Ellis Gallery
Globular shaman’s rattle with symmetrical design elements - Donald Ellis Gallery

Shaman's Rattle

Northern British Columbia

ca. 1800-40


height: 11"

Inventory # N2978-11


acquired by the Thomson Collection now at the Art Gallery of Ontario


acquired by the Scottish Reverend Robert J. Dundas from Anglican lay minister William Duncan in 1863 at the village of Metlakatla, BC
by descent in the family
Simon Carey, London, United Kingdom
Sotheby’s New York, Oct 5, 2006, lot 11

The present shaman's rattle was acquired by the Scottish Reverend Robert J. Dundas from the English lay missionary William Duncan on a trip to Canada in 1863. In 1862, Duncan had established a model Church of England mission at Old Metlakatla, an abandoned settlement near Prince Rupert, B.C. Dundas acquired almost 80 objects from Duncan, including crest helmets, rattles and antler clubs which remained in the Dundas family for several generations.

Globular rattles were made by the Tsimshian and other Northwest Coast groups primarily for use by shamans. Among this general type, only a relative few were made with relief-carved surfaces or sculptural protrusions, and only a few among those were created by such artistic masters as the carver/designer of this exceptional example. Consummate skill was employed in the composition and relief-carving of the formline designs on both sides of this rattle, now worn and dark with a patina of advanced age.

The design work is made up of the most classic forms from the ancient design tradition, and the graceful and harmonious manner in which the various shapes are joined and made to flow about the bulging surface is truly inspiring. On the front, the side on which the largest, central eyesocket ovoids are oriented upright, there is a narrow, turned-down beaklike shape between and below those eye forms. The presence of this beak shape in the center of the mouth and the featherlike designs extending to the rim above the brow area suggest that some species of bird is represented. Below the lower jaw of the central face is another, wider face structure with broad ovoid eyesockets and irises with widely extended eyelid lines. This face may in fact represent the body of the bird, a convention that is often seen in chests, boxes, and other two-dimensional design work.

On the reverse side of the rattle, a formline design that equals the compositional elegance and fine relief-carving of the front covers the entire surface. The overall design may represent the body, abbreviated wings, and broad tail of the subject bird whose face is on the front or obverse side. The two central, inverted ovoid shapes form the base of the tail, and layered U-shapes extend outward and downward from them to the edges of the rattle. On both sides, the design work incorporates simple, uncomplicated design forms that are indicative of a relatively early origin. The medium-width formlines and fairly large negative or carved-out areas suggest that this rattle was made sometime between the turn of the nineteenth century and about 1830 or 1840. Three holes may have been used to peg small tufts of human hair into the surface for kinetic embellishment, as cn be seen in certain early masks and other objects. It is one of the most accomplished and remarkable rattles of this type in existence.

Featured in the Press