Bravo to Archaeologists Who Brave the Blogosphere

“No Guts,  No glory” –that’s the title this morning of an amusing and wonderfully written post by University of Victoria archaeologist  Quentin Mackie over at Northwest Coast Archaeology.  The post takes an affectionate look at the stubbornly determined trials and tribulations that Newfoundland archaeologist Tim Rast and his exceptionally loyal band of friends and inlaws are currently undergoing as they experimentally carve up a seal and explore in detail its inner workings–from seal guts to rotting hide–all in the name of  science.

Over the past few weeks,  Rast and colleagues have experimented with scraping the hide,  festooning Rast’s clothesline with seal gut,  drying the bladder by inflating it with a bicycle pump (it ends up looking like a miniature pinkish  Goodyear blimp),   and freezing  seal blood in ice-cube trays  (for later experiments with seal-blood glue), etc, etc.

Rast relates these backyard adventures at some length in his superb blog Elfshot (which I’ve written about before),  and despite all the gore (or perhaps, more honestly,  because of the gore and yuck factor) I’m fascinated. Rast obviously knows his stuff cold, fearlessly wades in,  and isn’t afraid to mix in a little modern technology (ie. the bicycle pump) when necessary. And he’s oh  so Canadian,  dryly describing all this effort as “last week’s seal excitement,” and worrying about what he has been putting the neighbors through.

Rast’s blog is great fun.  But then read Quentin Mackie’s take on it all.  Mackie is quick to pick up on the scientific value of Rast’s experimental archaeology,  but he does so with a wonderful sense of humor, and a great eye for detail.  Here’s one example of what I mean:

“My favourite in the series deals with drying some of the parts, including inflating the intestines and the bladder: he wimps out and uses a bicycle pump, not his lips.  His volunteers are conspicuously absent from this part of the narrative, despite the chance to redefine the word ‘blowhole’.

Clearly these are two archaeologists having a lot of fun in the blogosphere,  and,  like many other readers, I’m riveted.   It’s  a little like sitting around the campfire or the  camp kitchen with them and listening to the cool stuff they learned that day,  all salted with some good-natured kidding.  I’m learning a lot and having a few very good laughs.

I really wish more archaeologists would join Mackie and Rast and venture out into the blogosphere in this very personal way.   I really want to hear their voices online, and I know I am not alone.

Photos:  Above,  Tim Rast and his merry band.  Below:  What a clothesline looks like when you are using it to dry seal guts.  Both photos are from Elfshot.


  1. Hi Heather,

    Thanks for the nice comments and compliments. It’s a bit like being around a campfire, I guess, except it can be like talking to yourself! Unless people comment – for me that makes a big difference because it shows at least one human was in earshot of that campfire.

    So, I’d urge blog readers to have fun reading but to also to not be shy and throw in a comment once in a while – if you’re afraid of making a comment, then ask a question! This kind of feedback is almost as important as a hot cup of coffee…


  2. Did they try to make any musical instruments from the seal bits? I really like your blog!

  3. Tim

    “It’s a little like sitting around the campfire or the camp kitchen with them and listening to the cool stuff they learned that day, all salted with some good-natured kidding.”

    I think that’s my favourite part about archaeology blogging, too. There is so much cool stuff that goes on in our jobs that doesn’t fit into the more conventional outlets for archaeological writing.

    Rosie – I’m going to put a short video clip up on Elfshot: Sticks and Stones in the next couple of days that answers your question. I’m not sure if its musical (or educational) but a mattress pump and a 35 foot section of seal intestine makes a sound that you won’t soon forget.

    1. Rosie

      I bet it sounds wonderful!!

  4. Hi Rosie — that got me thinking. Obviously intestines are still in use for making “cat gut” (usually sheep gut) strings for some instruments.

    This site has some great pictures of making catgut strings:

    I don’t know of any stringed instruments in indigenous North America though – almost all music was played on drums, rattles, whistles/flutes and of course with remarkable modulations of the voice.

    I’m not sure gut would work for, say, drum skins, because it may not come in wide enough pieces. I usually see hides scraped very thin being used for that, but pretty far beyond my expertise.

    1. Heather Pringle

      Am hideously ignorant on the subject of musical instrument strings. But I can tell you that many pro tennis players still use gut strings today. These strings offer power galore and incredible control–kind of the holy grail when it comes to tennis. The only problem, well two problems, is that they are pricey and they tend to break very quickly. So a lot of pros compromise. Roger Federer, for example, uses Wilson Natural Gut in the mains, and a synthetic string in the crosses.

      Gut strings are expensive for a couple of reasons. First of all they are made from cow intestines — actually three cows are needed to string just one racket. This is because the strings are made from a special part of the cow intestine — the serosa–which is the stretchy outermost layer. String manufacturers then process this bit of gut intensively to make a tennis string.

      For more info, see:

  5. Rosie

    I’ve certainly seen pitch perfect flutes carved from Scottish deer bones but I just wondered what parts of a seal could be used to make an instrument.

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