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Inuit seal game

pieces of bone and leather threaded together on a thin piece of leather

This child’s toy was made by Inuit people in northern Canada. It is made of bone, (the scapula or shoulder bone of a harp seal), dried skin with fur and wood. The stick and line fed through the piece of bone are thought to represent fishing through a hole in the ice. Through play it would have helped children to understand how to fish for food in later life.

Challenges for conserving the game

The bone is quite brittle and it has broken and suffered loss of some surface fragments, revealing the vulnerable spongy bone in the centre. Frequent or excessive changes in relative humidity (RH) can lead to the cracks opening up further as the bone absorbs and desorbs moisture and changes shape accordingly. RH needs to be controlled at around 50% +/-5% to avoid extension of the cracks already formed in the bone.

The skin ‘fishes’ are not fully tanned like leather, so they are quite dry and would be damaged by contact with moisture, solvents or any other liquids. They would now crease and tear easily if not handled gently.

'Spearing the seal' game

The Inuit people who made this game were the from Baffinsland, also known as Baffin Island, in the northern Canadian territory, now called Nunavut. The toy was made some time before 1956, but we don't know the exact date.

The object of this skill-testing game was to spear a seal through the 'breathing holes' in the ice, represented by the perforated white scapula (shoulder blade). A hit with the wooden harpoon in one of the holes in each seal skin may have scored points, with some locations being more successful in bringing down the animal than others. The game was not only a fun way to pass the time, but also served to teach a child necessary hunting skills.

The game was based on the principle that when seals have been swimming for a long time, they have to come up to the surface to breathe. Hunters take advantage of this by cutting a hole in the ice and waiting with their harpoon ready until the seal appears. This form of hunting takes great patience. Hunters will often wait motionless for hours over the breathing holes - any movement they make can alert the seal to the hunter's presence.

Accession number 56.26.513

You can try out more traditional games from different cultures around the world in the Weston Discovery Centre at World Museum.