A constellation of carvers will soon be gathering in Plymouth, Massachusetts for Greenwood Fest 2018 so I thought a taste of non-European spoons, ladles and scoops (some ceremonial, some for daily use) might be in order.


Ladle (Wakemia), ca. 1870, the Dan People. Met Museum.

Let’s start big with the wakemia, or wunkirmian, of the Dan people of Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire. These ceremonial ladles, which can be up to two feet long, are carved for the woman with the greatest reputation for hospitality. Wakemia translates as “spoon associated with feasts” and the large bowl of the ladle is a representaion of the generosity of the honored woman. In this example the bowl is shaped into a large leaf and the crest-like handle is intricately carved.

The wakemia can be carved in many different forms. The handle end is often carved with a human or animal head. One remarkable form is the handle carved to represent human legs. The photo above shows the detail on two different spoons (both positioned on stands).

Madagascar. Met Museum.

These two spoons are from Madagascar. The bowl shapes are different, but they share deceptively detailed handles.

Zambia, the Lozi people. British Museum.

Was the carver inspired by a lightning bolt? Was he following the zigs and zags of the piece of wood he chose to use?

It is not uncommon to see patterns, especially those with spiritual meaning, repeated in textiles, weavings and carvings. The spoon carver may have taken his inspiration come from one of the traditional patterns used in the woven baskets of the Lozi.

The shapes of plants and animals significant to the a culture’s religious beliefs and livelihood are often incorporated into items used in daily life.


Two very different spoons from Tanzania, with some similarity in the density of chip carving on the handles. Each spoon is likely from a different ethic group in Tanzania.

Tanzania. Both from the British Museum.

The top with its deep bowl and built-in spoon rest is the perfect serving spoon, while the porridge spoon on the bottom is more tour-de-force than spoon.

Ivory coast. Left: Sotheby’s, right: Bonham’s.

The innovative Kulango spoon from the Ivory Coast is a spoon on one end and pestle on the other. Although it is a utilitarian item it could easily be viewed as a sculpture. In fact, more than a few 20th century painters and sculptors were influenced by African art and everyday items.


This old Korean scoop has seen a lot of use and has a turtle shape. It is one of those things that gets passed down from one generation to the next and no one remembers who made it or when.

Toraja people, Sulawesi, Indonesia. Top: Met Museum, bottom: British Museum.

The Toraja live in a mountainous area of the island of Sulawesi. Although the top example appears to be the more elegant of the two, both spoons have a similar overall shape with a blunt end, are curved (the bottom one less so) and have a split-tail handle. The curve of these spoons is similar to the swooping roofs of traditional Toraja homes.

Sarawak, Baram River District, Borneo. British Museum.

The generous bowl and beautifully carved handle make this one of those spoons that complements the act of cooking and serving food. The ethic origin of the spoon is not definitive but the carving has similarities to a Melanau badek (dagger) sheath (left) and the carved crest of a hornbill bird made by the Iban (right).

Ifugao people, Luzon, Philippines. Left: British Museum, right: Sotheby’s.

The Ifugao from the northern part of Luzon decorate spoons with images of deities, an ancestor or a prominent person of the community. Pork or duck fat was traditionally used to polish the spoons. The area is known for its rice terraces and these spoons were used for serving rice and soups.

Spoons from indigenous groups of Taiwan. Top: Museum of Ethnic Cultures, Minza Univ., bottom: British Museum.

The spoon at the top is from the Paiwan. Many of their carvings are of snakes and this spoon captures the coil and scale pattern of a snake. The spoon on the bottom is from the Rukai. The Rukai often used boxwood, the bowl shape is leaf-like and the handle has geometric carving.

Ainu, Hokkado, Japan. Brooklyn Museum.

The Ainu are an indigenous people of northern Japan. One line of “spoon evolution” goes something like: cupped hand, shell, shell with handle, carved spoon. Here you go, shell with handle.

Ainu, Hokkaido, Japan. Brooklyn Museum.

If you look closely, there is carving on the handle of this Ainu ladle. In the gallery are two more Ainu spoons with some nice carving.

Tea which, spoon and bowl. Bottom: Met Museum.

Some spoon forms rarely change. The painting at the top is by Takeuchi Seiho (1864-1942). The bowl, jointed bamboo tea spoon and whisk are from an Edo era (18th century) traveler’s tea set.

The world’s largest rice spoon.

I have two of these rice spoons or scoops (regular size) made of bamboo and use them all the time, not just for rice. Next trip to Japan I am going to Miyajima to see this giant rice spoon made of zelkova wood. It is 7.7 meters long, 2.7 meters wide and weighs 2.5 metric tons (25’3” x 8’10” and 5512 lb). If there is a giant ball of string nearby I’m going there, too.

The “New” World

Wari spoons. Left: Met Museum, right: Archivo Digital de Arte Peruano.

The Wari pre-dated the Inca (early Wari culture is dated around 1200 B.C) and had a rich craft tradition of carving, ceramics, weaving and stonework. As you can see below, they made an awesome hat-no way I would leave that out.

Like many cultures there is a repetition of design that gives a unity to their work.

Archivo Digital de Arte Peruano.

Whether the spoon handle is topped with a bird (top) or a human the design is part of a cohesive whole. There is uniformity but no dullness in the repeated forms.

Now that we have verified there was spoon carving in the New World well before any Europeans arrived, let’s head to the far north.

Tlingit, all collected in Alaska. National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI).

The Tlingit are known for carving animal forms and totems. The top left spoon incorporates a painted raven into the handle, while the spoon on the right has a totem. These two pieces were likely reserved for feasts or ceremonial use. On the bottom is a spoon that probably saw use every day.

Northwest Coast Peoples. British Museum.

I found many Northwest Coast spoons and ladles in British museums. One curator (I forget which museum) remarked there was a collection frenzy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries because of fears some of the Northwest Coast peoples would go extinct. Identification of cultures was not always exact or correct.

In the four spoons above there is a wonderfully rendered wolf, a halibut and an “every day” spoon. The long-handled spoon has a pleasing carving of a plant.

Detroit Institute of Arts.

The top left ladle is Powawatomi with a bear effigy and the top, the top right spoon is Chippewa with either an owl or a feline effigy ( I vote for feline). On the bottom is another Chippewa spoon (or ladle). It is a bit chipped, but who cares? Those curves above the bowl are lovely.

National Museum of the American Indian.

Three feast ladles. On the left is a ladle with a bird effigy and speckles from the Iowa people was collected in Oklahoma; top right is an Osage piece, also collected in Oklahoma. On the bottom right is a Fox ladle with a horse effigy collected in Iowa.

National Museum of the American Indian.

The top spoon is Wampanoag from Fall River, Massachusetts; the bottom piece is Mohegan from near Norwich, Connecticut.

Rochester Museum & Science Center, Rochester, NY.

Both ladles are Seneca from New York. The spoon at the top has a bird effigy, as do many North American spoons, and here you can see a close-up. Without intricate detail the bird is captured perfectly. The spoon handle on the bottom is a bit unusual, with the lower leg of a human and a hook added for hanging.

The wide bowl of the ladles, especially from the East Coast, are known as clam shell bowls. If we go back to “spoon evolution” there are many shells in museum collections labeled as “spoons” or “shell spoons.” The mighty quahog clams of the Atlantic coast were a perfect implement for use as a spoon or a small shovel. The Seneca ladle above is included to show you both its heft and the six-inch wide bowl.

Detroit Institute of Arts.

This masterpiece is from the Yankton Sioux in South Dakota. Glass beads were used for the eyes of the bird.

Back to the “Old” Old World

Ancient Egypt. Met Museum.

And we are back to hands and clam shells. There are several variations on the Egyptian “clam spoon” from a dog handle to a woman swimming handle to these two hand-handles. Note the top spoon has the index finger supporting the bowl from below, while the spoon on the bottom has the thumb above and the rest of the fingers under the bowl.

Met Museum.

Sometimes, the hand is the spoon!

In hieroglyphics the hand translates as the letter ‘D’ or, depending on context, “by the hand of.” For the Toraja people of Sulawesi the word for woodcarving is Pa’ssura which translates to “as writing.” Wood carvers, ancient and modern, are using their hands to write their culture, whether it be spiritual, artistic, or both. Carving a spoon is your writing.

To wrap this up: “Spoonful” as Willie Dixon wrote it and Howlin’ Wolf sang it:

It’s just not the same with a fork.

Suzanne Ellison

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17 Responses to Spoonful

  1. Tim says:

    Very interesting. I am from NZ and there are some interesting examples of Maori carving such as the ones in this article. Not quite a spoon though.


    • saucyindexer says:

      Thanks for the link. There seem to be more similarities than differences from one culture to another. Many feast bowls of the North American Indians are also animal-shaped.

  2. Maurice says:

    Merci pour ces pages ! Une iconographie extraordinaire ! Bravo !

  3. “But one little spoonful of your precious love
    Is good enough for me”

    Spooning definitely isn’t the same as forking.

  4. ikustwood says:

    Superb article. Very exhaustive and interesting . Thank you !

  5. nrhiller says:

    What staggering evidence of human ingenuity! The honey spoon in the bee print may be my fave.

  6. Dan says:

    That Tlingit spoon against a blue background (a) reminds me of a Brancusi scupture at MOMA (Bird in Space, google tells me) so much that I was almost knocked out of my chair, (b) is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, and (c) means I’m going to be pumping out terrible knockoff Tlingit spoons all summer, at least. So much for sloyd! Thanks for sharing!

    • saucyindexer says:

      I agree! So many spoons in this post reminded me of work by European artists. Brancusi (one of my favorite sculptors) along with Giacometti, Picasso, Matisse (the list goes on) did use African art for inspiration.

    • CelesteCAT says:

      Looking up “Bird in Space” led me to this article: https://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2014/07/24/but-is-it-art-constantin-brancusi-vs-the-united-states/ about a disagreement regarding what constitutes art. So many of these spoons are held by art museums (and are visually stunning), it seems the definition can stretch even further. Seeing these out of context shows up the vanishingly thin line between beautifully useful, usable art, and “Art” or “Ceremonial” objects.

  7. Careful you don’t get struck down by smokestack lightning for spelling Howlin’ Wolf wrong 😉

    • saucyindexer says:

      I know. I’ve been trying to fix two errors but WordPress has been wonky today. Howlin’ Wolf has been fixed and now maybe the blues gods won’t hurt me.

      • BikerDad says:

        “maybe the blues gods won’t hurt you”? Really? Clearly, you have the blues gods confused with some other gods. They wouldn’t be the blues gods if they DIDN’T hurt you. Ya might as well ask Thor not to thunder, or the rain gods not to rain. It’s WHAT THEY DO.

        Thankfully, the blues gods are different from garden variety gods of pain and misery. The blues gods will also give you good stories and/or melodies to go with the pain.

        • saucyindexer says:

          OK, OK, I’m already being punished. T-Bone came calling: “Call it stormy Monday, and baby, Tuesday’s just as bad, (and ouch!) Wednesday’s worse…”

  8. Brian G Miller says:

    WOW. Good job.

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