I’ve linked before to Tim Rast’s excellent blog ‘Elfshot’, which chronicles his work in Newfoundland, making replications and experimental archaeology for love, and money. Or, as he puts it, “Making a living as a 21st Century Flintknapper.” You can buy some of his superb work here and also browse part of his impressive back-catalogue of reproductions here.
Recently Tim has been going beyond the call of duty with a fantastic series of detailed, superbly illustrated (for the strong of stomach – photos and videos) on preparing the hide of a hooded seal, and the associated fun of processing its intestines for technological projects. I urge you to go read them in their entirety over at his blog.
Seal intestines were, of course useful for any number of tasks.
In the first post, Tim and an apparently dedicated crew (including his partner Lori, and even her dad, AND his pickup truck: dicing with the boundaries of in-law tolerance, right there) take advantage of an unusual opportunity to exploit a hooded seal carcass. Subsequently, there is a great post on the use of paleoeskimo hafted scrapers for preparing the hide – interestingly, some large, ground stone scrapers that resemble very flat adzes were most effective at certain times.
My favourite in the series deals with drying some of the parts, including inflating the intestines and the bladder: he wimps out and uses a bicycle pump, not his lips. His volunteers are conspicuously absent from this part of the narrative, despite the chance to redefine the word “blowhole”. He then hangs the inflated seal intestines in his garage to dry out – no word on whether stomach-turning will occur.
Since that uplifting moment, he and his merry band of gore have cut the sea skin in a spiral pattern to create a single leather thong over 300 feet long, the entire cut made with a single hafted microblade.
If you have never seen an ice-cube tray full of frozen seal blood, you won’t want to miss his post on rendering the oil. He has some replica seal-oil lamps which are cool, and uses the seal blood as a very effective glue for hafting purposes – something to remember especially if you were doing blood residue analysis on archaeological specimens!
Most recently, he has been drying some of the seal gut and outlining a plan to make clothing from it – this is all new technology to him and you have to admire how he just jumps in and gives’er. If you’re curious about how you fit all that intestine into a seal, you might want to check out this picture from the excellent Skinboat Journal blog. (Yes, there is a reason you are not seeing that picture inline). Anyway, one of the main uses of sea mammal intestines would be to make waterproof clothing, especially over-coats for use in watercraft. Staying dry is essential to survival in cold-water northern climates and seal intestines would have been a crucial technology. Here on the Northwest Coast, the relatively moderate climate would have meant other applications for these useful internal organs.
It seems to have been sea mammal gut month on the internet. Heather Pringle had a really good post the other day on seal-gut clothing (nicely illustrated) on her excellent blog Time Machine. (We’re not counting the sadly aborted Seal Gut Raincoat blog, which would have been a niche, niche blog). And I have to confess to posting a picture of the inflation of a beluga whale stomach myself, just a few days ago!
So – take home messages, other than the obvious one that Elfshot is a fantastic blog you should all go and follow. Seals are an ubiquitous resource here on many parts of the Northwest Coast. We tend to think of them in terms of meat and blubber, and not so much the useful organs and skins they would have afforded. Certainly the needs would have been different in these cultural settings and environments.
One Northwest Coast possibility that comes to mind would be the use of intestines to make, in essence, “sausages” of blubber. This practice, wherein the sausages are stored indefinitely in swamps, is known from Patagonia and I would be surprise if there were not the same practice at some times and places (perhaps early Holocene; perhaps outermost coasts) around here – all the more reason to get at the archaeology of those wetlands! I’d really like to see more communication between coasts east and west – I guess a long time ago there was the edited volume by Ron Nash (1982) but anything since? Apart from anything else, there are probably a lot of First Nations people here who know a lot about processing seals, and the ethnographic record is, for sad historical reasons, much stronger here than in the former beothuk lands. From parchment to hot dogs to prophylatics, intestines have played a big role in the western tradition as well. In any case, Tim Rast does a great service by so vividly reminding us of the range of resources inside and outside the humble seal.
Nash, R. J. (ed.) 1983. The Evolution of Maritime Cultures on the Northeast and Northwest Coasts of North America. Simon Fraser University, Department of Archaeology, Occasional Publication 11, Burnaby.