I recently read about an amazing discovery – two halves of a giant fossil turtle bone found 163 years apart, and reunited (you can read about it here). I have never had quite that experience, but recently a got small taste of what it must be like.
For as long as anyone can remember we have had in our collection a series of drawings of Inuit tools, at least some of them by Donald MacMillan, drawn on pages cut from a biology workbook. The drawings are undated, but in part because of the economical choice of paper we suspected they were from the Crocker Land expedition. Perhaps paper was in short supply towards the end and the large blank areas were too tempting to ignore (certainly Etah was not the place to be studying the thorax of a crawfish). The drawings are simple, but carefully done. They sometimes include a scale in centimeters, and often the Inuktun word for the object as well.
One afternoon as I was considering pieces to include in the upcoming exhibit I happened to have on my computer screen for the first time images of both these drawings and some of the objects that we recently acquired from the Ekblaw family. Almost immediately, two tools caught my eye – a scraper or skin softener and an ulu that looked suspiciously similar to the drawings. After careful comparison I am convinced that indeed these tools were the models for the drawings.
The ulu, or woman’s knife, is clearly identical, down to the single rivet on one side of the ivory haft near the blade, and the irregularity of the blade itself on that same side.
The bone scraper does not have such well-defined features to match, but if you lay the tool on top of the drawing you can imagine MacMillan tracing the outline, which matches exactly.
A discovery like this is not going to alter our understanding of the expedition in any significant way, but by linking objects and drawings of them it does somehow help bring it into focus. The tools are not just anthropological specimens, but working tools, used by women living and working nearby before being acquired by MacMillan or Ekblaw – we can’t be sure who. The drawings are not abstract, idealized or ‘typical’ versions of the tools they depict, but actual tools, drawn while sitting at the table in Borup Lodge. Perhaps it was a way to while away a stormy winter day.