Ivory, bone, and hide: Material identification of a 19th century Greenland Inuit dog sledge collected by Admiral Peary

Judy Jungels, T Rose Holdcraft, and Dan Kirby


The Peabody Museum recently opened a new exhibition “All the World is Here: Harvard’s Peabody Museum and the Invention of American Anthropology” to celebrate its founding 150 years ago. Featured in this exhibit is a selection of materials collected by Admiral Peary for presentation at the Chicago World’s Fair (1893), including an Inuit (Inughuit) dog sledge from Northern Greenland. Inughuit sledge designs played an essential role during Peary’s explorations of Greenland and his quest to reach the North Pole. Historic accounts note that Peary’s sledges, being much heavier and rounded at the front, were often damaged while traveling across the ice hummocks. In contrast, the flexible design of Inughuit sledges and the experience of Inughuit drivers allowed them to travel gracefully through the rough landscape.
Discussions with museum curators and an independent scientist led to the desire to identify materials used in the construction of this Inuit sledge. Micro-samples were taken from hide, bone and ivory sledge components to identify the mammalian species from which they were derived utilizing a technique called “Peptide Mass Fingerprinting”. Peptide Mass Fingerprinting is an analytical technique for protein identification. The method was first developed in 1992, and uses a process of enzyme digestion to break proteins down into smaller peptides. This peptide mixture can then be analyzed with a mass spectrometer to reveal characteristic marker ions. This is known as a “peptide mass fingerprint.” Each protein has its own fingerprint and can be compared to known reference samples to identify its mammalian origin. Recently, Peptide Mass Fingerprinting techniques have been adapted to identify materials used in the creation of cultural objects. This technique requires only a micro sample and can be used to determine the mammalian origin of collagen-based materials such as ivory, skin, intestine, and bone.

This new information allows researchers to better understand the availability of specific materials at a particular time or place and can serve as a tool for Indigenous communities and other stakeholders in understanding their material technologies. Materials used in cultural objects change over time due to a variety of factors – for example, resource availability and increased external contact and trade. The construction of an object reflects its social, political, and economic context. In the early 1800s, when explorers first had contact with the Inughuit, sledges were made almost entirely of animal-based materials. By the time Peary arrived, sledges were constructed from recycled wood in combination with bone, antler, ivory, and hide. By 1895, there were known examples of sledges made almost entirely of wood, with only the runners remaining ivory. Analysis of the Peabody’s Inuit dog sledge revealed that it is constructed of materials from at least five different species. This talk will discuss the history, material identification and construction of this unique 19th century sledge from Northern Greenland.


2018 | Houston | Volume 25