Friday, March 18, 2011

Caribou belt and ornament

Caribou hide, teeth and hooves
This caribou hoof belt and caribou teeth ornament are reproductions number 15 and 16 of 17 in the Central Arctic set.  They are based on Inuit artifacts in the collection of the Canadian Museum of Civilization.  Once again, the copyright for the images of the original artifacts lie with the CMC, so if you'd like to check out the artifacts, you can visit the Online Artifact Catalog and see them here:

Belt: The original artifact has 32 polar bear claws strung from it on sinew thread, which would require the claws from two bears.    I managed to source 7 of the 32 claws before the client decided that we should go with caribou hooves or dew claws in place of the bear claws.  I was happy with that decision because I didn't know where I was going to get the rest of the claws from.  The switch meant I needed to get the feet from four caribou instead of the toes from two polar bears, which seemed much less daunting.

Caribou hooves and dew claws strung on a hide belt with sinew
Rangifer tarandus hooves
The hooves that I found still had the toe bones in them and were attached to a bit of skin.  I boiled them down, soaked them in water and detergent, and then water and borax.  While they were still wet, I popped the toe bones out to make hollow hoof cones.  There was a lot of variability in the size and shape of the hooves and dew claws and in the end I used a combination of medium sized hooves and large dew claws, because I felt that it gave the best match to the look of the original artifact.

The belt hanging from a door - its big!
The scale of this piece is a little deceptive.  The length of the artifact is listed as 136.5 cm.  I made the rangifer tarandus hide belt a few centimetres longer than that so that when I tied the loops and knots in the end of the belt it would end up being 136.5cm long.  It still seems quite long, but if it was worn outside of a skin parka, its just the right size.  The caribou hooves, aren't exactly authentic for the piece, but they create the same generally impression, size and shape of the polar bear claws, so I'm satisfied with the end product.  The hooves make a nice tinkling sound when the belt moves.

Caribou teeth and rawhide
Ornament:  This piece has 9 sets of caribou teeth mounted in caribou rawhide, suspended from a short belt.  This one was a bit of a challenge.  I've been working from photos for all of the pieces in this set and usually I have at least a front and back view, but these particular piece was mounted on a board and the reverse image is a picture of a sheet of plywood.  Fortunately, the McCord Museum in Montreal has a similar piece in its collection and their online catalog has amazing photos; ME982X.156 Ornament.  The caribou teeth ornament from the McCord Collection is in worse condition than the CMC piece, but the photos are so good that I could still see a lot of details about the construction, including the reverse side of the teeth.
Rawhide ornament with caribou teeth and sewn with sinew

Caribou teeth, loose after boiling
When I originally saw this piece I though that the teeth were still embedded in the jawbone, which was then suspended from the hide straps.  I was still working on that assumption when I boiled the jawbones, so I was extremely disappointed when the teeth became loose from the boiling and the left and right mandible split apart down the middle on many of the jawbones.  They seemed ruined.  Some of the teeth came out individually, but the majority popped out as a set, still embedded in the skin and gums which shriveled and detached from the bone during the boiling.  However, it turned out that was exactly what I needed - I just didn't know it at the time.  If you check the McCord piece you can see that the teeth are still embedded in that little flap of gums and palate.

Teeth set in the drying rawhide
All of the jawbones that I got from the Province were missing the middle two incisors, which had been removed for aging studies.  This meant I had to mix and match the teeth a bit to reconstruct complete sets of 8 teeth.  I embedded them in damp rangifer tarandus rawhide strips cut to the shape of the end of a caribou jaw.  As they dried and shrank they held the teeth firmly in place and took on the rich golden colour seen in the rawhide in the artifact.  They even wrinkled up the same as the artifact.
A little macabre, but I like it
When they were dried, I added a bit of hide glue to the back of the teeth to keep them solid, although the constriction of the drying rawhide really held them firmly all on its own.  I sewed the teeth sections to the whitish bands at the top of the ornament.  I tried to use similar stitches to the sinew thread on the McCord ornament.  Overall, I'm really happy with how this piece turned out - I think its a really close match for the original at the CMC.

Photo Credits: Tim Rast


  1. This is a strange questions, but do the teeth and toes make interesting noises when worn as a belt?

  2. The teeth are pretty clicky and chittery when they click together - like a dog who needs her toenails clipped running across a tile floor.

    The belt of hooves makes a much more fresh and tinkly sound, like a wind chime made from sea shells and Popsicle sticks.


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