Argillite is similar to the substance known as catlinite which was used by the indigenous peoples of the American Plains to carve their ceremonial pipes. However, while catlinite is of a reddish brown color because of its high iron oxide content, argillite is a dark-grey to black color because of its higher carbon content. Argillite used by the Haida is found at the Slatechuck argillite quarry on Slatechuck Mountain near Skidegate on the east flank of Graham Island in the Queen Charlotte Islands of the North Coast of British Columbia, now called Haida Gwaii. In the Skidegate dialect of the Haida language argillite is called kwawhlhal.
The argillite from the Slatechuck quarry does not contain quartz or feldspar, and the organic matrix from which it is constructed is highly complex, characteristics which make it different from other argillites. The Slatechuck argillite began to form about 70 million years ago when a nearby vent in the earth’s crust heated a shale layer formed of kaolin and carbonaceous matrices. To the naked eye, argillite looks similar to other forms of shale, however differs microscopically as there are high amounts of organic materials trapped throughout the matrix.
Most carvers create a sculpture from a single piece of argillite wherever possible. However because an increase in the size of argillite increases the potential for failure in the piece due to inherent faults and stresses, larger sculptures are sometimes made from separate pieces carved and subsequently adhered. High relief is often carved by working against the grain. This technique lends stability to the fragile argillite. The drawback to this method is that it sometimes causes flaking, making carving in high relief an advanced carving technique. For a long, shallow piece, it is often better to work with the grain. Different objects require varying levels of skill in their execution. Panel pipes are considered the most difficult pieces to carve. Bowls are also challenging, with group figurines, boxes, poles and plates considered easier to do. The black finish of argillite is usually not natural. In its natural state, argillite is often a grey-black or green-black color. The jet-black finish is created by the carver rubbing the carving with the oils or polish as it is being created. The natural oils that skin produces are actually responsible for creating the deep black color argillite is known for, although it is also common to coat the argillite with a polish to recreate the jet-black color.
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