What is Antler Art and Shed Hunting?

What is Antler Art and Shed Hunting?

Watercolor by Joe Ziolkowski on elk antler
Original watercolor on elk antler by Joe Ziolkowski

What is Antler Art?

Antler art” is the creative embellishment of an animal antler or horn. This creative practice is as old as primitive shed hunting or gathering. Some ways of artistically modifying horns found throughout history have been carving, antler painting and adding mediums like beads, feathers, leather, shells, stones or gemstones. Use of antler and horn dates as far back a 10,000 years ago and are still used today in traditional purposes.

What are Antlers?

Antlers are bone extensions of an animal’s skull found in members of the deer family. They are a single structure not segmented. They are generally found only on males, with the exception of the reindeer/caribou. Antlers are regrown each year and are recognized as objects of sexual attraction and as weapons in fights between males for control of females.

A bull elk in Montana sporting a nice set of antlers!
A bull elk in Montana sporting a nice set of antlers!

In contrast, horns, found on pronghorns and bovids such as sheepgoatsbison, and cattle, are two-part structures or segmented. An interior of bone (also an extension of the skull) is covered by an exterior sheath made of keratin, the same material as human fingernails and toenails, grown by specialized hair follicles. These types of horn do not shed and continue to grow throughout the animal’s life. This is not the case with the pronghorn which sheds and regrows its horn sheath every year. These kinds of horns usually grow in symmetrical pairs.

Each antler grows from an attachment point on the skull called a pedicle. While an antler is growing, it is covered with highly vascular skin called velvet, which supplies oxygen and nutrients to the growing bone. Antlers are considered one of the most exaggerated cases of male secondary sexual traits in the animal kingdom and grow faster than any other mammal bone. Growth occurs at the tip and is initially cartilage, which is later replaced by bone tissue. Once the antler has achieved its full size, the velvet is lost and the antler’s bone dies. This dead bone structure is mature antler. In most cases, the bone at the base is destroyed by osteoclasts and the antlers fall off at some point. As a result of their fast growth rate, antlers are considered a handicap since there is an immense nutritional demand on deer to re-grow antlers annually, and thus can be honest signals of metabolic efficiency and food gathering capability.
“Antler” Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antler

In most arctic and temperate-zone species, antler growth and shedding is annual and is controlled by the length of daylight. Although the antlers are regrown each year, their size varies with the age of the animal in many species, increasing annually over several years before reaching maximum size. In tropical species, antlers may be shed at any time of year, and in some species such as the sambar, antlers are shed at different times in the year depending on multiple factors. Some equatorial deer never shed their antlers. Antlers function as weapons in combats between males, which sometimes cause serious wounds, and as dominance and sexual displays.
“Antler” Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antler

The infamous Jackson Hole antler archway. That is a lot of antlers!
The infamous Jackson Hole antler archway. That is a lot of antlers!

What is Shed Hunting?

Shed hunting is the outdoor activity of finding antlers that have been shed by any antler-bearing mammal. For example a moose, caribou, elk, and deer.  These antlers are referred to as “sheds” or “shed antlers.” 
This growing past time has attracted the young and old. People searching for shed antlers would be referred to as “shed hunters” or “shed antler hunters.” These antlers make great rustic decor, to make crafty home goods, antler art, adornments on tools and jewelry, Shed antler hunting has become a fast-growing outdoor activity. However, the ritual of gathering antlers has been occurring since the dawn of man. Cave paintings and human relics incorporated antlers into objects of cultural importance. Depictions of man in cave wall art have given us a window into a time where antlers were gathered. Those primitive men and women have also left behind artifacts made from antler. Signifying their urge to apply practical daily uses and creative antler art uses to the horn.

Applying my Craft of Watercolor to Make Antler Art.

One of my first experiences in art as a child was when my father introduced me to acrylic painting. It was an off day. usually my dad would be busy doing chores around the house, cooking of some sort or we would be away fishing in the hills of Montana somewhere. I can remember sitting at the huge round wood table in the dining room. He had some old tubes of paint and cheap brushes but what he taught me that day would later grow into something much bigger. We spent the next several hours layering paint on some old cow bone, shoulder blades to be exact. One was a spring painting and another a snowy image and I still have these today! I would have never dreamt that I would return to apply my craft once again to these kinds of surfaces.

In the past 8 years I have developed my watercolor applications to surfaces like saw blades, bone, wood and elk antler or elk shed. There is nothing quite like painting on an organic canvas. It offers a challenge, unlike 2-dimensional work where I have to allow the paint to do its work on such an unforgiving surface. There is also the obstacle of trying to illustrate a story in just a sliver of allowable space to do so. The results are profound though! I often incorporate pigment that has reflective and pearlescent properties. The landscape vibrates under light at all times of the day. Edges pop and highlights sing with my understanding of how to weave my chosen medium. Each antler painting is so unique and no two will ever be alike. They are original non-printable and are very special as they are real antler and I am a real living artist. I hope you enjoy these relics as they offer my interpretation of life through a keyhole of light held by nature’s creation.


To learn more or if you have questions about antler art please go to Ziolkowski Antler Art.
To find out more about who I am, go to About Joe Ziolkowski.

Some History of Creative Antler Art Application.

Antler has been used through history as a material to make tools, weapons, ornaments, and toys. It was an especially important material in the European Late Paleolithic, used by the Magdalenian culture to make carvings and engraved designs on objects such as the so-called Bâton de commandments and the Bison Licking Insect Bite. In the Viking Age and medieval period, it formed an important raw material in the craft of comb-making. In later periods, antler—used as a cheap substitute for ivory—was a material especially associated with equipment for hunting, such as saddles and horse harness, guns and daggers, powder flasks, as well as buttons and the like. The decorative display of wall-mounted pairs of antlers has been popular since medieval times at least.
“Antler” Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antler

Hand carved moose antlers.
Hand carved moose paddles.
A needle case made of carved antler.
Fish-shaped antler needle case, 10th C Wolin, Poland

Antler headdresses were worn by shamans and other spiritual figures in various cultures, and for dances; 21 antlers “frontlets” apparently for wearing on the head, and over 10,000 years old, have been excavated at the English Mesolithic site of Starr Carr. Antlers are still worn in traditional dances such as Yaqui deer dances and carried in the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance.
“Antler” Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antler

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