Monday, March 29, 2010

Seal Processing

Sealskin in a drying frame
A surprise opportunity came up this week to do some experimental work with a hooded seal carcass. The female seal died shortly after giving birth and sadly her pup had to be euthanized. Because of the unusual circumstances the Department of Fisheries and Oceans needed to do a necropsy on the seal to determine the cause of death. After the necessary samples were taken by the biologists they donated the skeleton to the Archaeology Department at MUN for their comparative collection and down the line we were able to get some of the soft parts for experimental work. Its a sad story, but if there is a silver lining, much of the animal will be used for research and educational opportunities.

Removing the blubber
The necropsy was scheduled for 10 am this morning and unfortunately I couldn't attend because I was already booked to do the Provincial Wholesale craft show. Lori went with the MUN Biologist and Eliza Brandy (an archaeology grad student who will be processing the skeleton) to observe the procedure and collect the parts. It's a big seal. Lori and I spent the last 4 hours in the backyard removing as much of the blubber from the skin as possible. We tied it into a frame and tomorrow I'll get back at it to finish cleaning the fat off. The end goal will be to cut the hide into long thongs so that I have some air dried sealskin to experiment with for lashings and lines.

Stitching the skin into the frame
Skin in the finished frame

There are so many things that I'm curious about along the way. So far I've used metal knives to remove the bulk of the fat, but tomorrow I'll switch to stone tools. I have a lot of palaeoeskimo reproductions on hand, so I'm going to try to finish cleaning the hide using stone endscrapers. I haven't cleaned a hide like this before so there will be a big learning curve. I want to test baleen versus sinew binding on endscrapers, to see which one lasts longer or performs better. My hunch is that the baleen haft will last longer in the fatty mess than the sinew hafted tools, which will loosen as they get wet. Either way, I'm excited to try.

Rinsing off the hide

Photo Credits:
1-3,5 Lori White
4 Tim Rast


  1. Have you seen the tool the Cree use for cutting sinew lashing for snow shoes? I don't know what it is called or really what the tool itself looks like, but I recently saw a snowshoe making video that Joe Goudie has, and with this tool, and two people they were able to cut a moose hide into one very long strip, in a rather short amount of time. It was pretty cool.

    Scott N

  2. I'll have to look into that - thanks for the tip! There's a neat way to make sealskin into straight thongs by cutting the hide off the seal in tubular sections, like calamari rings, and then cutting those tubes into one long strip. That makes the line perfectly straight, instead of having a left or right turn to it from cutting around a flat skin in a circle. Maybe next time.

  3. yeah, I think the cree method would give it a turn because they worked around the circle - very thin strip though. It was a really neat video, they were working moose hide, and stretched it out in the cold and let it freeze before they scraped the last layer of fat off, you could almost see through it when they were done. They used a metal tool, attached to a really long pole, it was even more interesting becasue the tool was shaped very similar to some of the MA groundstone tools I have seen in photographs.

    Scott N

  4. I believe the pup is still at the DFO until they determine the cause of death of the mother. If there is a hereditary cause they may do additional testing on the pup. The Biology department at MUN has expressed interest in it after that.

  5. Thanks for the pictures, Tim. I wasn't expecting the pelt to stretch so far- great to see the picture of the pelt next to the frame before it was stretched.

  6. Its a really big pelt -- at least 2-3 times the size of a harp seal. Do you recognize the poles I used in the frame? The frame from Clifford's Education Fund was exactly the right size and I figured a genuine Kelloway cut frame would help bring good luck to the project.

  7. It's a good thing we had a cold snap the last few days. I can't imagine doing this kind of work in 10C+ weather.

    Have you used any of your stone scrapers yet?

  8. The weather has been very co-operative. I'd love a day or two below freezing, but its hovered comfortably between 0 and 5 degrees celcius since we started working.

    I tried the stone scrapers briefly on the thick fat and they weren't the right tool for the job. I used a metal knife to cut all the thick fat off now and tomorrow I'll start in straight away with the scrapers to try and get the grease out. I think a larger bladed bone or slate knife could have been used in place of the metal knife, but I didn't have any made up ahead of time.

  9. Good thing you have the majority of the messy stuff completed.

    Will you be testing out any traditional softening techniques on the hide - such as chewing? I understand that this was often the wife's responsibility in the production process...

  10. Are you volunteering your wife, John?


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