Carved wheat seed

By Anne-Marie Culhane

My favourite object in Exeter’s Royal Albert Museum is a carved wheat seed.

It appears in a glass box by the foot of a giant stuffed elephant. I’ve re-visited the seed many times – it keeps taking my breath away. To give an idea of scale the length of the seed kernel is around 7mm. I’ve been on a bit of a journey with this seed with several unsuccessful attempts to find out more about micro-carving seeds, particularly wheat seeds. This has led me to contact: Tim Clark, Head of the Japanese Section, Asia Department, British Museum; the Japanese Consulate in London, and Tony Eccles, Curator of Ethnology at Royal Albert Memorial Museum who could only find one reference to it in book by interior designer Christopher Dresser called Traditional Arts and Crafts of Japan, New York: Dover, 1994.  Tony had no idea that seed carving was such an undocumented art. (read Tony’s description of the seed below)

I love imagining the steady hand that carved this –using touch not vision to create the form, slowing his/her heartbeat and possibly carving between heartbeats; I love the alien nature of the carved figures, their squat forms; I love that I have to work so hard to see the figures and hold them in focus with my naked eye; I love the idea of a deity inhabiting a seed and the reverence for the seed that this object expresses for me;  I love that this rare object is a wheat seed, a plant that holds such a central role in our agricultural story; I love that someone could dedicate this much time to something so small that could be blown away in one breath. Each time I see it it sparks all sorts of reflections on our evolving relationship to the seed.

As we come back round to the season of the seed I wanted to post this and I will add to the post if I find anything else about this.

Here is an except from the museum description which you can find on the RAMM website:

Carved Wheat Seed

It appears to have been made soon after the harvesting period. It was acquired, probably as a souvenir, at the Ise Jingū, a complex of over 100 individual Shinto shrines in Ise prefecture, Japan.

The deities are likely to be representations of Daikoku and Ebisu, two of the seven Shinto gods of fortune. Daikoku and Ebisu are often seen together as the deities of bountiful harvests. Food is often the centre of human activity. In people’s homes, these deities are responsible for the provision and protection of food.

Victorian commercial designer, Christopher Dresser, journeyed to Japan in 1876-7 and observed such carvings being sold in a market just outside the Kamiji-yama Shinto temple in Ise.

The Ise Jingū shrine complex dates to around 710CE. It was dedicated to the sun goddess Amateresu ōmikami. The complex consists of the Gekū, the Outer Shrine, and the Naikū, the Inner Shrine, which are 6 kilometers apart and connected by a pilgrimage road. It is tradition for these shrines to be remade to exact specifications every twenty years. This is to ensure that the shrines always look new.

Miniature carving is a traditional craft that dates back more than 2000 years in Asia. The art of micro carving refers generally to the engraving of infinitesimal characters on ivory, grains of rice, wheat or millet and human hair.

Traditionally, the artist cannot see the work he is carving but has to rely on touch. The art is therefore sometimes described as “carving by one’s will”.

Below is a painting I did earlier in the year of our wheat seeds, JB Diego. They are orange coloured because they are coated with a manganese seed dressing and Kinto, a fungicidal seed dressing. The seeds come with a warning not to touch with bare hands or allow animals to feed on them.