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Hide boats in prehistoric Orkney part two: 101 uses for an inflated seal

Updated: Aug 19, 2018

Hopefully everyone reading this watched last week’s episode of the 3-part BBC TV show ‘Britain’s Ancient Capital – Secrets of Orkney’, and so saw the team crossing the Pentland Firth in their hide boat – if not, read my previous blog entry, which should explain matters.

The Pentland Firth boat used melted beef fat to waterproof it, but seal oil would work just as well , as used in Alaskan for the umiauks. On a long voyage you have to reproof it, so you need to take your seal oil with you in a suitable container - can you guess what these are?

Seal skin containers for food known as pokes, Kotzebue, Alaska
Seal skin containers for food known as pokes, Kotzebue, Alaska

If you guessed at sealskin pokes or food/oil containers then go to the top of the class! Nowadays of course the thought of killing a seal fills people with horror, but ethnographically and of course archaeologically seals were a valuable resource. When skinning a seal to use for a container, an initial cut was made at the neck & the skin worked loose and peeled back. The poke in the foreground of the picture above shows the tied-off ends. These could also be used as fishing floats if inflated rather than filled with oil or food, and there’s one just visible resting against the side of the umiak in the picture below:

Whaling expedition in an umiak with a seal skin float
Whaling expedition in an umiak with a seal skin float

It’s not so far from home either – here in Scotland fishing floats used to be made from dogskin in the same manner, called dog bowies, they were cured and covered in tar and attached to fishing nets by the neck end.

Last week’s episode also briefly showed the Scandinavian rock art boats and mentioned they could be hide, but didn’t really go into it – perhaps it would’ve spoilt the story if they told viewers that Sverre Marstrander already built & floated a hide boat based on the rock art design in 1976! If you only want one book on the subject then go for Sean McGrail’s 2001 Boats of the World From the Stone Age to Medieval Times published by the Oxford University Press – everything you wanted to know about ancient boats but were afraid to ask.

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