13 • A 15th Century Narwhal Tusk

13 • A 15th Century Narwhal Tusk

Arctic Ocean; 15th century
207 cm long

This tusk has been passed between trader and collector for over 600 years and is possibly the oldest surviving example of a narwhal tusk in the world.

Perhaps just as remarkable is that all those centuries ago it grew out of the upper lip of a whale. It is easy to understand why Europeans, until they started travelling to the Arctic themselves in the 19th century, credited narwhal tusks as confirmation of the existence of unicorns. Look at the resemblance to the horn in Maerten de Vos’s extraordinary portrait from 1572, produced a century or so later than this tusk.

Unicorn, Maerten de Vos, 1572,
Staatliches Museum Schwerin, Germany

Due to this mystique they once changed hands for many times their weight in gold. In 1577 Queen Elizabeth was gifted one by Martin Frobisher on his return from Canada, an account of which was described by Herman Melville in Moby Dick:

Sir Martin Frobisher on his return from that voyage, when Queen Bess did gallantly wave her jewelled hand to him from a window of Greenwich Palace as his bold ship sailed down the Thames…. on bended knees he presented to her highness a prodigious long horn of the Narwhale, which for a long period after hung in the castle at Windsor.

The Horn of Windsor, as it then became known, was at that time valued at £10,000 – a higher price than Windsor itself! Amazing to think that when it was first traded, this tusk would have commanded the price of a castle.

However, perhaps the most astonishing fact about these tusks is that despite all the research so far conducted, scientists still debate their precise function. Whereas a few years ago one example was responsible for helping ward off rampaging terrorists along London Bridge and maintaining the wellbeing of many relieved onlookers, interestingly their tusks do not have any function towards the survival of narwhals themselves, proven by the fact that females only rarely have tusks yet still manage to live longer than males. What is certain, however, is that they have forever fascinated and been treasured as wonders of the natural world.

A radiocarbon dating report is available