Sunday, December 1, 2013

Baffinland Inuit Kayaks, Settlement: Peabody Museum #1

This is the first of several planned posts featuring boat-related displays at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. This post focuses on a single diorama of a late 19th-century Eskimo (Inuit) settlement in Baffinland, typical of the culture north and northwest of Hudson's Bay. As this was a distinctly maritime culture, I feel it's appropriate to include discussion of some elements that are not strictly boat-related, such as their housing arrangements.

The Baffinland Eskimo diorama at the Peabody Museum, Harvard University (click any image to enlarge).

The left side of diorama shows the settlement in summer, with the ground bare of snow. In the background is a semi-subterranean, prehistoric dwelling that has been reconditioned for re-use with a covering consisting of two layers of skin, with a layer of heather in between as insulation. Rocks hold the skin against the ground. Note the long, narrow, stone-covered trench entryway.
Near the entry is an inflated sealskin float attached by a long line to a harpoon. When an Eskimo succeeded in harpooning a seal, sea lion, walrus or whale, the float slowed the prey's flight, served as a marker for its location, and prevented it from diving deeply (thus making it an easier target for additional harpoon strikes), or sinking when it died.

Closeup of the previous scene: When not in use during the summer, kayaks were stored well aboveground on stone pillars, to protect their covers from being eaten by hungry dogs.

The right side of the diorama shows a different part of the same settlement in winter, with snow on the ground. The pillars on which the kayaks are stored are made of snow blocks here. In addition to protecting them from hungry dogs, this also prevents them from being covered by snow drifts.
Left background: meat and blubber storage on a platform of granite blocks.
Center background: an igloo under construction. From the display card: "The entryway in the house under construction slopes down gently before abruptly rising into the main vault. This design serves as an effective cold trap for frigid air, enabling the living area to remain warm and comfortable."
To that igloo's right, a man cuts blocks of snow for its construction. Care was taken to cut the blocks from drifts that accumulated during a single storm. This ensured that the blocks were of consistent composition, and avoided layered blocks that might split apart when cut.
Close-up of the right side of the diorama, with the display card's description: "This structure houses two families who share one entrance. The small protruberances along the entryway are storage rooms for either clothing, spare meat, or blubber. The main vault for these winter quarters could be as much as twelve feet high and twelve to fifteen feet in diameter."
The igloos are lined with hide, barely visible around the base of the cutaway structure at right rear. Cords tied to the wooden toggles visible on the exterior of that igloo and the one to its left pass through the snow-block walls to secure the lining.  
Close-up of the three kayaks on the diorama's right side.
The deck gear on the upright kayak includes a sealskin float on the rear deck and, on the foredeck, a shallow, round container that holds the line attached to a harpoon. A very long paddle with very narrow blades, apparently tipped with bone or ivory, rests across the bottoms of the other two overturned boats.  
The kayaks in the diorama are similar in many respects to the Baffin Island kayak from Cape Dorset shown in Adney and Chapelle's The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America. The boats' bottoms are flat in transverse section; the back of the cockpit coamings are straight; the aft decks are low and flat; and the stems are extremely raked and very long above the waterline. 
The Peabody Museum houses excellent permanent and temporary exhibits and collections, mostly of American cultures but also including some other parts of the world. It's attached to a museum of natural history that's included in the price of admission, and both are well worth a visit. 


  1. Thank you for this posting. I am coincidentally just starting on building an Eastern Arctic style kayak. Details at I hope to be able to say more about the merits of this boat after I actually complete it and get it out on the water. But they are reportedly fast, stable and seaworthy. Usually, fast and stable are in opposition to each other, but we will see.
    Flat, stable kayaks are available on the recreational market as plastic sit-on-tops and their stability makes them popular with sports anglers. However, they are not fast so I am curious to see whether the Eastern Arctic kayak type is able to combine reasonable speed with stability.

    1. I have experience in a fiberglass West Greenland-design kayak (VCP's old Anas Acuta), which, I guess, you'd include as "Eastern Arctic." I'd say it is not a stable design, but it is a seaworthy one in the hands of a skilled and attentive kayaker (which doesn't necessarily describe me). I got accustomed to it, but unskilled kayakers found it terrifying -- partly the result of the authentically-scaled cockpit, which was round and small, requiring a conscious effort to wet-exit from, unlike most of today's huge cockpits, which take a concscious effort NOT to fall out of in the event of capsize. This boat was very narrow and it also had a great deal of rocker, which further reduced its stability.
      It's interesting (and to some, counterintuitive) that long, narrow boats are more stable than short, narrow boats. To the extent that a boat of any length resists capsize to a degree, the longer the boat, the proportionally greater the resistance to capsize. Shorter boats of the same beam only appear to be more stable because of their greater beam-to-length ratio.

  2. Some further comments on the kayaks in the diorama. The details on the kayaks are quite good and seem to be based on actual field notes or photographs. The kayak that is stored by itself seems to be one of the shorter styles and appears to be covered in about seven hides. According to Dr. Eugene Arima, kayaks were covered in the hides of bearded or ringed seals, the bearded being larger of the two. The kayak that appears by itself seems to be covered by a larger number of hides than the other kayaks which appear to be covered by five hides.
    Dr. Arima's article on this kayak type can be found at

  3. Apart from the excellent impression of an Inuit settlement it does point up a problem for archaeologists and anthropologists. If we found such an abandoned site there would be virtually nothing to see with most items removed or edible.

    TC Lethbridge makes this point in his Herdsmen and Hermits comparing prehistoric Scottish hut sites with recent Eskimo ones, settlements of people at much the same level of technology.

  4. Interesting observation on length helping stability which seems to be true of logboats.

    I can confirm that skin boats are attractive dogs as if our garage door is open and he is running free a large spaniel will pay my cowskin covered coracle a visit. Fortunately he has not yet had his teeth in the boat yet and our own dog appears indifferent to it.