Bentwood Dish

About this object

History of use

Bentwood dishes were usually used for serving food, including fish oil, at feasts. They were also used as trade goods or gifts, and were symbols of wealth and prestige.This box appears to have been used for serving oil.

Cultural context

oil serving; status; ceremony

Iconographic meaning

Designs on bentwood boxes are often ambiguous, so that various meanings could be assigned by the owner, or the imagery may be more complex than just crest representations.

Specific techniques

Bentwood, or kerfed-corner, containers are constructed by a process unique to the Northwest Coast Aboriginal peoples. The carver begins with a single straight-grained plank of red cedar, or sometimes yellow cedar, spruce, or yew. The surface of the plank is finished with chisels, adzes, and knives; in earlier times, it was smoothed further with sandstone or dried sharkskin. Then three parallel kerfs, or grooves, are carved out at measured points across the width of the board, at right angles to the long edge. The kerfs, which will become three corners of the box, allow the board to be steamed until the wood fibres are softened, and then carefully bent to form a box with symmetrical sides. The final corner, as well as a fitted base, are joined and fastened with pegs (through drilled holes) or laced with spruce root or twisted cedar withes (branches). Storage boxes also have fitted lids of cedar, hollowed from the inside. Finally, painted compositions may be applied to the completed box and shallow carving added to bring the forms into relief. A well-made bentwood box is watertight. Historically, most boxes were used to store preserved foods and material goods; plain cooking boxes could be used to steam or boil food by adding water and heated stones.

Physical description

A rectangular bentwood dish, or box, with bulging sides. The flat lip on top overhangs the concave interior sides. The lip curves up on the ends, and slightly down along the long sides. There is one inlaid opercula shell left on one lip side. Each end has seven indentations for shells, and eight or nine on each long side. There are two different designs with both ends, and sides similarly carved, respectively. The ends are bilaterally symmetrical with large salmon-trout heads below the centre, and to the sides, between, there are u's with split u's at the top, and circles below. Circle in circles at bottom centre with s-shapes to sides. At thet top, there is a crosshatched u in a u-shape with a split u to the top. S-shape to the sides. Sides are bilaterally symmetrical with circles at the top corners, and a series of u's to the centre top. Vertically aligned u's in a u-shape below the circles, at the sides, and two u's to outsides. The u's to the centre are with split u's with a circle in the top ones while there are ovoids in the bottom ones. Carving is deep in some areas. Thick base is lashed with cedar (?) to the box sides. Inside bottom shows parallel adze marks.