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Ethnographic and Aboriginal knives – at one time I could hardly spell these terms let alone understand what they meant. The title itself is enough to turn away crowds at any self-respecting knife show or swap meet. If you find yourself in this spot as well, then let me explain what these are.

First of all, Ethnographic knives (and weapons) are the collection and study of those that are unique to a particular people, culture or ethnicity. Collecting Samurai swords, that is to say swords of the Samurai, would be considered in this category as they are uniquely Japanese, but think too Native American knives, Persian knives, Zulu knives, Indonesian knives, etc.

Aboriginal knives (and weapons) are those that belong to a people who are considered the first or earliest known of their kind present in a region. An example would be the Inuit knives from Alaska, Canada or Greenland, or the Chukchi knives of Eastern Siberia.

Collecting knives in either of these two categories can be extremely challenging and rewarding. Collecting original and authentic pieces can be tricky – let alone expensive, so I have made the decision to also include top-grade replicas and modern renditions. Sometimes this is the only way to have a representation of a great knife in a private collection.

To help you,  the collector, understand and better appreciate what is good and acceptable in such collections, I have put together some broadly accepted terms that will help the you determine if a piece is right for your own collection.

Ethnographic collecting is probably the easier of the two, because the timeline for pieces in this category is from pre-history to present day. It’s about collecting the tools and weapons of a culture or ethnicity, not necessarily during a specific time period. A modern Karambit knife from Indonesia – more specifically from a household in Indonesia, is an example. Buying a Karambit from XYZ Knife Company is just buying a Karambit. Another example is my Szlachta Polowanie Sztylet pictured below. It is a classic Polish weapon with design influences dating back to the times of fending off the Mongols and Tartars.

Aboriginal knives are a little more tricky, and expensive. Within this category, the purists prefer pieces prior to the twentieth century – mostly because pure aboriginal peoples still existed in large numbers throughout the world then. While this is a good standard, it presumes a time period boundary for what is acceptable as an aboriginal piece.

For myself, I have broadened the definition to include any piece that is made by descendants from such a people, and who practice the skills and art of their ancient traditions to craft the knife. For me, it’s not about when the knife was made, but by whom. This definition has allowed me to widely grow my collection where I would not have been able to afford to so otherwise.  

Here is an example of a Navajo Dance knife that actually is both Ethnographic and Aboriginal at the same time. The knife was made by David Begay, a Navajo artisan who decorated this knife specifically for me – white over red beads symbolizing my Polish heritage. The bone knife is deer bone fashioned using traditional means. The wrap handle is buckskin, as is the sheath. The medallion in the center is a piece of dried oak, rather than the silver Gaucho medallion seen on modern copies. The knife was then blessed and was presented to me as a finished product.

What makes this knife ethnographic is that it is Native American. What makes this knife aboriginal is that this particular bone knife design, decoration, and use is specific to the Navajo. 

There are a few additional terms to grapple with that actually can apply to any category one decides to collect – including WWII pieces. It’s a short list, but the terms are easily interchanged which often make selecting a knife more difficult.

Authentic – a knife that is not false in its representation; it is not a copy of or a replica of or an interpretation of something else. It is the genuine article. A common misunderstanding of something "authentic" is that it must be old. Not true. An authentic piece is not necessarily held to a time period - it can be ancient or modern. Using my bone knife as an example, it is an authentic Navajo bone knife made for the purpose of being used in modern Navajo dance. It was never presented as a historical artifact, but as an authentic knife made by a Navajo artisan. But then, so are all the other and fancier bone knives in the Navajo Trading Post…right? Um, no. Those are copies and replicas not used by the makers and are intended for a public audience as souvenirs. 

Replicas & Copies– many of the knives in various trading posts and gift shops from Arizona to Tahiti are either replicas or copies. Collecting ethnographic or aboriginal replicas is as legit as collecting the real deal – and much less expensive. There is a real difference however, between a replica and a copy, although they are often and casually used to mean the same thing. A true replica is a reproduction of the original in exacting detail. A copy often omits or adds details not found on the original artifact.

A modern replica of a WWII trench knife for example, is made with the same exacting qualities as the original – same steel type, same bluing or parkerization, same cuts of leather, same sheath pattern, and depending on the original being replicated, include armory proof marks and serial numbers. If a museum is willing to present it in place of the original, then it’s a good replica.

A copy of the same trench knife however, may also include the company’s name, or manufactured country of origin, or not bend the cross guard just right. A copy may also omit specific details, such as rivets instead of studs, plastic instead of Bakelite. Copies can also take on artistic interpretation not found on either original or authentic pieces.

Replicas and copies each have their place in a quality knife collection. When the original or replica cannot be obtained, there is nothing wrong with a good copy! The point of this discussion is to know the difference before you buy, or invest as is sometimes the case.

Collecting Ethnographic and Aboriginal knives and weapons – be they authentic, original, replica, or copies – can be a lot of fun. You can’t help but learn something new when you do. Collecting such pieces also adds a unique perspective and diversity to the collection.

The following photos are additional examples of Ethnographic and Aboriginal knives and weapons. I identify each as to its classification, and whether or not it is authentic, replica, or a copy. 

My Aztec ceremonial knife. This is a copy that borderlines replica quality status. The actual knife that this copy represents is at the Teotihuacán Museum at the temple site, and it is magnificent! The blade on my knife is actual hand knapped green obsidian, just like the original. The handle, however, is a polymer resin formed from a mold and fitted to the blade. The making of these copies is control by licensing the manufacturer, then licensing who can sell them. You can see and feel the mold seam across the handle, and the epoxy that holds the blade to the handle. 

This is my Szlachta Polowanie Sztylet, or Polish Nobleman’s Hunting Dirk. This is a stylized copy of similar dirks from the North East regions of Poland with historical influences of early Mongol design. A Slavic ethnographic piece, it is a copy as interpreted by Gerlach Cutlery, Poland’s oldest and largest cutlery company (1760 - 2014 • GERLACH • POLSKA). We know this is a stylized copy because “Gerlach Nierdzewne” (Gerlach Stainless) is etched on the ricasso. This piece is a designer collectible based on authentic period dirks rather than a piece that is collected. Being Polish myself, collecting Slavic knives such as this is a physical connection to my heritage.

And finally, this is a replica of a hand-held Polynesian Cula Cula club.  The Cula Cula is a weapon that can be hand held such as this example, or be wielded with both hands. Fashioned in the design of a shark's tooth, the smaller Cula Cula is used as club and a thrusting weapon. The thin blade allows the user to cut through bone rather than shattering it. How a Cula Cula is decorated also represents the owners status. The larger two-handed versions are also used as clubs and thrusting weapons, but also serve as shields and oars. 

Hand carved and etched from hard tropical Vesi wood, this piece is ethnographic in nature because it represents the Polynesian people rather then a specific aboriginal group such as Hawaiian or Tahitian. 

Collecting Ethnographic or Aboriginal specific pieces can be very rewarding, and it can be perceived as being very high-brow and exclusive. And with good reason - one cannot help but be educated as he learns more about the piece and the people who use it. So if you want to learn more about the world and the peoples in it, consider ethnographic or aboriginal collecting. The more you find that is different, the more you find they are the same!

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Post script: I forgot to add this little ditty to the discussion. This is one of the things one can learn when collecting ethnographic pieces - this is from an 1894 news article describing daggers carried by immigrants from Poland. Apparently you just can't trust us Poles. 

This could be a good thread I am looking forward to seeing what other folk's come up with, unfortunately I have nothing along these lines myself . When I was visiting relatives in New Zealand the Maori weapons in Auckland museum were fascinating mostly green stone but the work that went in to them was amazing .

Dzien dobry  -- Lovely piece Lars,

FYI there are already recognized categories to these knives: Primitives and Regional Implements.

I've got a kukhri made during WW1, issued to a gurkha regiment, used in France, brought back by a great uncle.  Is this an authentic piece certainly but is it really an authentic kukhri as it was made for the DOD by some Birmingham cutler?

I have some chert/flint pieces indicative to Eastern Forest Tribes.  Two specifically being mentioned are a knife with deer tine handle, sinew wrapped (artificial) and housed in a quilled leather sheath and secondly, a leaf shaped spearhead on a hardwood shaft (store bought dowel), wrapped with sinew (also artificial) and having dangling owl feathers.  They were copied from examples at an Ottawa, Ontario museum.  Does that make them authentic or replicas as they aren't exact copies and also, what of the fact that they were made by a nice old Jewish guy, named Horowitz.

Is a modern day tomahawk made by a First Nation tribal member an authentic tomahawk?  I mean Indians never made metal tomahawks they traded for them as they did for any and every metal product since Columbus.

Is the Khukri marked as Birmingham Shlomo , the reason I ask is that the Khukri's issued to the Gurkha regiment today are made in Nepal . They are certainly pretty authentic judging by the video's of their production visible on You Tube.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qol5Ey3sImQ

This is reputed to be a good place to buy a Khukri, though I haven't used them myself ,

http://www.thekhukurihouse.com/Content/KhukuriInfo.php

Dzien dobry Shlomo! - Thank you for your comment. These are all good points to consider. Your WW1 Kukhri in my opinion is not so much authentic ethnographically speaking as it is authentic military issue - although I suppose it could actually fit in both camps based on the regiment it was issued to. 

As for your flint pieces, again in my opinion, I would classify them as "copies", representing those from the Eastern Forest Region. Nothing against the nice old Jewish guy, named Horowitz, but I doubt he is aboriginal to the region, and from a different ethnicity than those of the peoples of the Eastern Forest Region - but that's a guess on my part.

Now your Tomahawk is a great item for discussion. I would certainly call that authentic, as he is making something that his people traded for and used regularly. And I have every confidence that if First Nation tribes learned to work with metals as other cultures have, they would have pitched the flint stone centuries before Europeans arrived!

Again, these are my opinions. I can assure you that a purist in ethnographic or aboriginal collections would discount my own pieces as I have described them - being that no ancient people actually used them. Few if any account for modern evolution.


Shlomo ben Maved said:

Dzien dobry  -- Lovely piece Lars,

FYI there are already recognized categories to these knives: Primitives and Regional Implements.

I've got a kukhri made during WW1, issued to a gurkha regiment, used in France, brought back by a great uncle.  Is this an authentic piece certainly but is it really an authentic kukhri as it was made for the DOD by some Birmingham cutler?

I have some chert/flint pieces indicative to Eastern Forest Tribes.  Two specifically being mentioned are a knife with deer tine handle, sinew wrapped (artificial) and housed in a quilled leather sheath and secondly, a leaf shaped spearhead on a hardwood shaft (store bought dowel), wrapped with sinew (also artificial) and having dangling owl feathers.  They were copied from examples at an Ottawa, Ontario museum.  Does that make them authentic or replicas as they aren't exact copies and also, what of the fact that they were made by a nice old Jewish guy, named Horowitz.

Is a modern day tomahawk made by a First Nation tribal member an authentic tomahawk?  I mean Indians never made metal tomahawks they traded for them as they did for any and every metal product since Columbus.

You are correct John, and I have come within pennies of making a purchase from this same site, and for the same reasons as this article promotes - I consider these to be authentic blades made for the serious user, not souvenirs or decorative presentation pieces only.

John Bamford said:

This is reputed to be a good place to buy a Khukri, though I haven't used them myself ,

http://www.thekhukurihouse.com/Content/KhukuriInfo.php

Oh - I forgot to respond to this comment...thanks for pointing that out. I was totally unaware. I'll have to look those up because while I think I understand what might be classified as Primitives, Regional Implements is not as clear. Judging by title alone, my first impression would be the regional differences of say, Swedish Viking knives, or in John's case, the Claymore verses the Norman Sword. 

But as I said...I'm judging the category by it's title only. Where are these located at on iKC, do you know?

Shlomo ben Maved said:

Dzien dobry  -- Lovely piece Lars,

FYI there are already recognized categories to these knives: Primitives and Regional Implements.

Sanjay Khukuri, from Khukuri House is a member, though not active.  might want to contact him for more information...

http://iknifecollector.com/profile/KhukuriHouse


John Bamford said:

This is reputed to be a good place to buy a Khukri, though Ihaven't used them myself ,

http://www.thekhukurihouse.com/Content/KhukuriInfo.php

It has the Crown over the crossed maces so it's definitely Birmingham although the maker's mark and date are long gone.

John Bamford said:

Is the Khukri marked as Birmingham Shlomo , the reason I ask is that the Khukri's issued to the Gurkha regiment today are made in Nepal . They are certainly pretty authentic judging by the video's of their production visible on You Tube.

Is it authentic sure; is it an authentic kukhri, certainly; is it an authentic Gurkha kukhri, yes but it sure as Hell isn't a genuine Nepalese Gurkha kukhri...So then is it a replica, a reproduction even though it was an issue piece?

Remember that the Gurkhas have been part of the British army for over 200 years.

There were numerous makers of kukhris in England for the Nepalese couldn't keep up production and didn't have the quality control that the DOD wanted...Then again there are so many regional variances in the design as to be staggering.

It was issued to a Gurkha fighting in France during WW1 so yes it's military and yes it's regimental (Gurkha) but it isn't authentic as it came from England just as a lot of these modern kukhri emporiums get their blades from India.

So then if my flint stuff was made by a good friend, Anthony Redcoat of the Cree tribe instead of a museum curator it would be authentic?  Not even close...Same with the tomahawk...They are all replicas or reproductions regardless of who made them or where...Same as a broadsword or rapier or fighting hammer is even if made in a restored smithy in England or France...They may be authentic to the style and maybe even the construction but that's all.

BTW--your references to the Samurai sword has a couple of minor errors in it...There is no such thing as a Samurai sword they are katanas, period...To be Samurai was a hereditary title, passed down through the generations and all it meant, in simplistic terms, was that you could wear the two swords and that you were nobility...You could be a Samurai and have never held a katana in your life let alone trained in its use--because your forefathers were...Also the actual blade design came from China and due to the poor quality of the iron ore the smelting techniques developed the blade into a specific shape (which changed drastically over the centuries) and therefore fighting style.

Your Aztec knife is the same as the movie sword from the Highlander and probably available at about the same number of dealers...I've seen yours offered from $33 to $45...Google Aztec Ceremonial Knife and you get hundreds of hits...If it had jade handles then it would be a reproduction but as it stands now, it just a souvenir.
 
Lars Ray said:

Dzien dobry Shlomo! - Thank you for your comment. These are all good points to consider. Your WW1 Kukhri in my opinion is not so much authentic ethnographically speaking as it is authentic military issue - although I suppose it could actually fit in both camps based on the regiment it was issued to. 

As for your flint pieces, again in my opinion, I would classify them as "copies", representing those from the Eastern Forest Region. Nothing against the nice old Jewish guy, named Horowitz, but I doubt he is aboriginal to the region, and from a different ethnicity than those of the peoples of the Eastern Forest Region - but that's a guess on my part.

Now your Tomahawk is a great item for discussion. I would certainly call that authentic, as he is making something that his people traded for and used regularly. And I have every confidence that if First Nation tribes learned to work with metals as other cultures have, they would have pitched the flint stone centuries before Europeans arrived!

Again, these are my opinions. I can assure you that a purist in ethnographic or aboriginal collections would discount my own pieces as I have described them - being that no ancient people actually used them. Few if any account for modern evolution.

As to regional it takes into account Philippine bolos and balisongs, Indonesian parangs, African pangas, South American machetes, Spanish navaja knives, sugar can knives, cotton knives, etc.

Some primitive makers:

http://www.idahoknifeworks.com/

http://www.north-river-custom-knives.com/

http://www.winklerknives.com/

http://jmcknives.blademakers.com/

Points noted. Thank you for your debate.

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