baleen and wood vessels
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Baleen and Wood Vessels
Wood was available to peoples of the Bering Strait only in the form of driftwood; often baleen and ivory were more plentiful than wood, and just as serviceable


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The Materials at Hand

The Bering Strait region is unique for its wealth of sea mammals, especially walrus and whales. Limited land flora meant that wood as a material for construction of dwellings, tools, and household objects was relatively scarce and present mainly in the form of driftwood. When available, wood was used for food trays (such as the one shown above), bucket bottoms, wound plugs, float plugs, and many other items, but is rarely preserved in ancient sites.

Pinnipeds (seals and walruses) and small whales supplied the hunter's family with food; but they also provided a number of other products. Sea mammal blubber, in addition to being a dietary staple, was rendered into oil for use in lamps for heat and light; skins were used for clothing, thongs, and boat covers; and ivory teeth and tusks were used in a variety of functional and decorative industries and were important trade items.

Baleen, the narrow elastic plates which extend in a fringe from the upper jaw of certain whales (serving to strain and retain their food) and ivory served many of the same purposes wood would have been used for by forest-dwelling peoples. Flexible and comparatively easy to work, yet tough and impermeable when dried, baleen provided an excellent material for the construction of various household items. An example can be seen in the wood-bottomed baleen pail shown in the exhibit above.

- William W. Fitzhugh, ed. J. Prusinski

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