I haven’t really mined the SFU Archaeology museum website yet – they seem to have had a bit of a makeover recently, though many of their online resources are achieving “vintage” status. One such is the photo-essay on making a hide scraper from a caribou metatarsal, or the long, straight bone between the caribou ankle and its hoof – the long bone of the foot (ungulates walk on their tip toes).
The essay is a series of over 20 pictures showing step-by-step the process of making the scraper:
Caribou meat is eaten, and the rest of the animal is used in a variety of ways. The antlers are carved into many types of tools and tool handles as well as sculptures for sale. Caribou hoofs are strung onto a caribou skin cord and used as rattles.
Caribou hides are made into soft, warm clothing. Clothing used in summer has the hair removed. Winter clothing is made with the hair left on. Each caribou hair is hollow which traps air inside as well as between the hairs. This extra insulation makes caribou hair clothing warm even in -40 degree temperatures. Caribou skin clothing is an essential survival tool in northern latitudes.
The best time to hunt caribou for winter clothing is the fall, when the hair is firmly attached to the skin. In spring the caribou sheds, loosening the hair attachments. Summer clothing can be made from skins of animals killed in the spring.
To prepare caribou skin for tanning, the hide must be scraped. All fat, meat and connective tissue must be removed before the tanning proceeds. This can be done with a knife made from metal or stone, but these are sharp, and often cut the hide. A better tool is made from the bones of the caribou itself.
In the following series of photographs, Mr. John Shae makes a hide scraper from a caribou metatarsal (lower leg bone).
That’s the entirety of the essay, and while each photo is informative it comes with no explanatory text. The entire essay ends rather abruptly soon after the photo below, which does not obviously show a finished tool. The introductory text is terse and lacking in context and does not place the events in any community; nor is the author or photographer named – coming from SFU, I wondered if it is derived from Sylvia Albright’s excellent M.A. work, published as Tahltan Ethnoarchaeology? I looked and saw no people named Shae (or Shea) mentioned – she does illustrate some different bone tools and hidescraping, ca. 1980. (See below, and download Albright’s thesis here, which I am pretty sure is essentially identical to the published version).
Nonetheless, I was really happy to find this visual essay and will be pointing my students towards it for a couple of reasons: it shows how to make such a tool of course, but more importantly it shows a traditional practice in the present and therefore emphasizes that these skills are still practiced and, it shows that a bone tool can have properties which make it preferable to a metal tool – at least until Lee Valley starts making mahogany and titanium hide scrapers.