This stunningly large sculptural object is an eloquent example of an Iroquois feast ladle dating from the late 18th/early 19th century (circa 1780-1820). This would have been used for portioning food into individual bowls from a caldron or large serving bowl, particularly during celebratory or ceremonial feasts.
It is made from a maple burl whose swirls, knots and irregular grain resulted from stunted twig buds that failed to elongate into limbs so grew instead as a round protuberance from a tree trunk. This burl ladle has a burnished patina and edge wear along the right side of the scoop, both attesting to its many years of past use.
There is archeological evidence that the earliest Woodlands peoples used eating and serving ladles made of shell and antler, and journals kept by Europeans during their first encounters with Native Americans in the 1600s documented that wooden ladles were commonly used for eating meat stews and cornmeal mush.
While every individual in a tribe had a personal eating ladle, only one feast ladle was needed per clan, so this larger form of effigy ladle is scarce indeed.* In a study of 701 ladles (with and without effigies) in the collection of the Rochester Museum and Science Center, Betty Colt Prisch (1982) notes that the ladles ranged in length from 2”-12”, with the vast majority being 4”-8” long individual eating ladles. Only a few examples of the larger feast ladles in the 12” size range are in the collection, which began being formed over 175 years ago by the museum’s anthropologists.
This ladle is 13.5″ long and 8.75″ wide. The photo below showing it next to a personal eating ladle emphasizes the contrast in size, and thereby function, of the two ladles.