Collections Highlight E83166: Umiak Model

By Daniel Kellam

For most Arctic peoples, the sea and rivers are essential for providing food and transportation to ensure survival. The umiak was the boat of choice for the Inuit.  At 7 inches wide and 22.5 inches long this model of a wooden framed umiak uses the traditional material of animal skins to cover the frame, and is structurally similar to a life-size umiak. This model was accessioned in 1943 after being donated by Mrs. J. Stanley-Brown.

Collections Highlight E274505: Bird Bolas

By Daniel Kellam

A “bola”, from the Spanish word for ‘ball’, is a type of weapon consisting of a cluster of weights on strings attached to a hand grip that can be thrown at an animal or bird to entangle its legs or wings. Weapons similar to bolases can be found around the world for hunting a large variety of game, but in Inuit communities they are most often used to hunt birds. The bola would be thrown into a flying flock of birds, entrap one or more of the animals, and bring them down to the ground. This bola made with walrus ivory weights was collected from an Inupiaq community in Alaska by J.G. Brady between 1878 and 1909. It was donated to the museum by Mrs. Edward H. Harriman, and accessioned on June 7, 1912.

Collection Highlight E280159: “Devil Chaser”

By Daniel Kellam

Provocatively titled “Devil Chaser”, this musical object is also indexed as a ‘bull-roarer’ in our catalog information. This long, slightly curved wooden rod was swung with a circular motion fast enough that it would emit a loud, low, vibrating noise. While we cannot say for sure why this specific object is given the name “Devil Chaser”, bull-roarers have been used in communities around the world since Paleolithic times for both practical purposes such as long-distance communication and ritualistic purposes such as healing. Among the Inupiaq peoples of Alaska bull-roarers are also referred to as ‘wolf-scarers’, which gives us some insight into how they were used in that community. If you take a closer look at the catalog information, you’ll see this “Devil Chaser” has a small face carved into the end of the handle. It was collected near the Bering Sea in Alaska by R. D. Moore and accessioned on October 19th, 1913.

Explore more objects and images on our online database!

2017- A Year in Review

By Chelsi Slotten

    It’s hard to believe it’s already 2018! We’ve had a very busy year with some really incredible highlights. The year started with some of our staff attending the second set of NSF-sponsored workshops exploring the idea of an Arctic Digital Library to increase access to Arctic archival collections. These meetings were followed by a whirl of activity that culminated in two events in April. We invited two scholars from Alaska, Rhonda Sparks and Hannah Voorhees, to present at our annual Ernest “Tiger” Burch Memorial Lecture. Their talk on climate change and indigenous understanding of human-polar bear relationships was particularly well attended.


Narwhal Exhibit
A look at our Narwhal exhibit.

   Earlier in April we launched a new series of blogs which highlights the amazing objects in our collection. We’re working with the Emily Cain and Haley Bryant from Circumpolar Ethnology Imaging Project to showcase some of our favorite items in the collection. Over the past year almost 2,500 object records in our Arctic Ethnology collection have been digitized and made available to the public! As part of our desire to increase digital access to Arctic collections, Igor Krupnik, Nicholas Parlato and Chelsi Slotten attended and presented on the state of collection digitization in the Arctic at ICASS IX in Umea.

    Around the same time, our Alaska Office released two new free educational resources through our Sharing Knowledge Alaska initiative. The new interdisciplinary curricula helps students learn about Alaska Native peoples, including traditional knowledge, subsistence practices, languages and values. We were also thrilled to have Dr. Aron Crowell, director of the Alaska Office, talk about his experience of dialogues with indigenous scholars, artist and educators in their communities and at the museum. In Alaska local artists participated in a moose hide tanning and sewing residency that culminated in several public programs and a workshop.

French Coin
A 1630's French coin from an Inuit site in Quebec.

    Back on the east coast, Bill Fitzhugh went on his annual research expedition to Quebec and Labrador. One of the most exciting finds of the summer was a French coin from the 1630’s which helped to date the Inuit site we have been excavating in Quebec. The students on the trip also got to spend some quality time as Norse re-enactors at the L’Anse aux Meadows Viking site while waiting for suitable weather for boat traveling. Bill’s research trip had a slight interruption when he returned to DC for the opening of our newest exhibit, Narwhal: Revealing an Arctic Legend, which runs through early 2019. The exhibit and its companion volume are already very popular as the narwhal has a somewhat legendary status and is referred to as the “unicorn of the sea.” In fact, the unicorn myth is based on information on narwhals that came to Europe via Greenland Vikings!

    We were also fortunate enough to acquire a large new collection item this summer. Stephan Loring and Igor Krupnik helped with the acquisition and transport of a 28-foot Siberian Yupik Angyapik, also known as an Umiak in North Alaska, from St. Lawrence Island. The traditional skin boat is over 50 years old and is part of a disappearing tradition as more and more boats of this type are now made with synthetic materials.

St. Lawrence Island Angyapik
Our newest collection item, a 28-foot Siberian Yupik Angyapik.

    This year has been filled with collaborations, educational outreach, an exciting new exhibit, new projects, and progress towards understanding the amazing changes underway in the Arctic. We are, as always, excited to continue to learn and ready to face whatever the New Year brings—one of those things will be our forthcoming books on Arctic Animal Crashes and a compendium on Canoes and Kayaks of the Eurasian North. Wishing you all the best from all of us here. Happy New Years!

An Archaeological Discovery in Cake and Chocolate

Hollinger Viking
By Chelsi Slotten

    Every year the anthropology department at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History has a holiday party, and every year we wait with baited breathe to see what new creation master cake baker and archaeologist Eric Hollinger will unveil.  This year’s impressive creation, a 29” chocolate Viking Ship, is modeled after the Oseberg Ship from Norway.  Accompanying the ship are a Viking longhouse made of cake, a pretzel dock, and a jello ocean!  The ship is manned by four Vikings preparing for a journey, or maybe just returning.

    Ships like the Oseberg vessel are rare finds in the archaeological record because wood only preserves under very specific conditions.  The Oseberg Ship was excavated in 1904 by Gabriel Gustafson and is one of the best preserved examples of Viking Age ship construction that exists.  The 71’ vessel was made of oak, unlike our chocolate replica, and would have carried 30 oarsmen when it was fully manned. Given the impeccable construction, and elaborate decoration of the vessel, it is likely that the ship belonged to a very important member of society. 

Viking boat    In addition to the ship, archaeologists uncovered a wealth of grave goods in the vessel.  There were five intricately carved wooden animal head figurines, four decorative sleighs, an ornately carved wooden cart, textiles including imported silk, a bed, parts of looms for weaving, skeletal remains o at least 18 different animals, and many more practical objects for day to day living.  These extravagant grave goods further the belief that the individuals interred in the boat were from the higher echelons of society.

    The identity of the two women from the Oseberg burial has been debated for over a century.  Archaeologists know that the women were buried during the summer of 834 AD and that the burial was broken into a little more than a century later, during the reign of Harald Bluetooth.  As a result, the remains of the two women were scattered around the burial chamber, and many objects may have been removed from the burial in antiquity.  Archaeologists have speculated that the two women may have been Völva, female seers in Norse religion, or that one of them may be Queen Asa, or that they were important political and social figures whose names have been lost through the millennia between their burial and rediscovery. 

    This burial has been regarded as somewhat of an anomaly for the century that modern scholars have known about it.  The common assumption has been the Viking Society was male dominated but the Oseberg burial is the richest Viking Age burial ever found, and contained two women.  So what do scholars make of evidence that doesn’t fit the prevailing theory?  We revise our theories of course!  Recent DNA analysis of the skeleton in a ‘typical’ and wealthy warrior’s burial at Birka in Sweden has revealed that the skeleton in the grave was actually a women.  This study, as well as others that are currently underway, help us to reassess the past and learn more about century old discoveries that still have secrets to unlock.  Regardless of whether we ever learn their names, these women and their burial have fascinated archaeologists for more than a century, and continue to inspire analysis and the creation of impressive and delicious desserts! 

Collections Highlight E90052: Buckskin Coat for Doll

By Haley Bryant

This buckskin coat wouldn’t fit even the smallest community member—it was made for a doll! Despite its miniature size, it was constructed and intricately painted in the same manner as a full size coat would be. This wee coat was collected near Ungava Bay in Quebec, Canada, by Lucien M. Turner from the Nascopi (now known as Innu) Indians, and accessioned on January 9, 1884.  This coat was special enough to someone, likely Lucien M. Turner, that they drew a image of it in the collection ledger.

Explore more objects and images on our online database!

Collection Highlight E280196: Disguise for Seal Hunting Cap


By Haley Bryant

This object, affiliated with the ‘Eskimo’, today known as Inuit, cultural group, is indexed in our catalog as a ‘hat’ but it more likely would have been worn over the face like a mask. In fact, the catalog information describes it as a ‘disguise’ to be worn while seal hunting, to allow the hunter to more easily approach a seal without frightening it away? This cap was collected near St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea by R. D. Moore and accessioned by the museum on October 10th, 1913.

Explore more objects and images on our online database!

Collections Highlight E10439: Inuit Stone Lamp

By Daniel Kellam

This half-moon soapstone bowl is much more than what it appears. Our catalog information indicates this stone lamp was attributed to the “Eskimo”, today known as Inuit, cultural group. This lamp was collected by Captain C.F. Hall in 1871 in Repulse Bay, Canada. The stone bowl would be filled with oil or blubber, then a wick made of dry moss or grass would be inserted and, voila, you have a lamp that is capable of providing light and heat for hours when properly maintained. This lamp is roughly 27 inches long, 14 inches wide, and 3-5 inches tall. Like many soapstone vessels in our collections, this lamp was broken at some point.  It has been skillfully repaired with sinew and possibly some form of glue.

Explore more objects and images on our online database!

Collections Highlight E167940: Coffee-Caddy

By Daniel Kellam

Americans, along with many other peoples around the world, have an obsession with their coffee. We drink it everyday, often in large amounts. We have ceramic mugs, travel mugs, color changing mugs, and even disposable stryofoam coffee cups. What does one do when none of these resources are at your disposal? This vessel, which comes from Lapland, looks similar to many other vessels found throughout the region but was specifically used to transport coffee! This coffee caddy was collected in 1893 by Hon. J.M. Crawford and was accessioned by the museum in October of that year. It is made of wood, and is ornately carved. While this caddy was most likely used to transport and hold dry coffee beans, it highlights the similarities and differences among cultures through the lens of something as simple as a beverage many people consume daily.

Explore more objects and images on our online database!