figurehead, carved decoration usually representing a head or figure placed under the bowsprit of a ship. The art is of extreme antiquity. Ancient galleys and triremes carried rostrums, or beaks, on the bow to ram enemy vessels. These beaks were often surmounted by figureheads representing national or religious emblems. Roman vessels were sometimes embellished with large heads of the gods in bronze. Viking ships had lofty and extended prows which were elaborately carved. Dragons and lions vied with the human form in the figureheads of the Renaissance. During the 18th and 19th cent. a highly developed and original art of figurehead wood carving flourished in the United States at a time when little other sculpture was practiced. Few examples survive. With the disappearance of the sailing vessel figurehead art became practically extinct. A fine collection of American figureheads is in the Mariners' Museum, Newport News, Va.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.