Object: Chinese Puzzle Balls

AS-4-1-38 a-b
Chinese Puzzle balls
1300-1911 AD
Material: Ivory

This set of carved ivory puzzle ball statuettes came into the collection at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, previously known as the Stovall Museum, on February 10, 1956. These objects, along with several others, were accessioned into the collections as a transfer from the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art.

In the year 1936, Ponca City Oilman Lew Wentz and British photographer R. Gordon Matzene donated over 750 objects to the University of Oklahoma to spark the construction of the university’s art museum. Wentz had funded a number of Matzene’s trips to East Asia where he collected these treasures over time. It was not until the year 1956 that the Fred Jones Museum of Art loaned these ivory ball figures to the Stovall museum.

It is noted that these items came from China in the collection records, although the particular region is not specified. This type of item was popular throughout China, so it is also hard to determine an exact date of the carvings. The dates for ivory ball carvings like these are usually no earlier than the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). However, there are some occurrences of similar products appearing in Canton China as early as the 14th century (Laufer, 1925).

The process for making a puzzle ball is very difficult. The entire ball is made from one solid piece of material. Ivory was often used, but other materials such as jade, wood, or soapstone were also used. In ancient times the balls were carved completely by hand. In more recent times, a lathe was used to shape the balls and then cone-shaped holes were drilled towards the center at varying depths. Once the holes were made, the craftsman then would take an “L” shaped carving tool to make the separate layers forming the balls within balls. The craftsman started with the smallest center ball and then carved out spherical layers slightly larger than the previous one. The designs were added to each layer after they were completely cut free from the surrounding area. The craftsman used micro tools to pierce the surface of each ball and usually adorn the outside layer with exceptionally exquisite detail. Many of the designs carved into the puzzle balls were symbolic in meaning.

The SNOMNH ethnology department is eager to learn more information about these ivory puzzle balls and hopefully get a better estimate of the time period during which they could have been produced. We welcome any comments concerns or suggested references. [Laura Cronin]

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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