Blubber: It’s what’s for dinner

Contributed by Lindsay Randall

The end of Winter Term has arrived and with it the bitter New England cold, which is fitting given our most popular lesson during this time is our Inuit focused activity, Blubber: It’s What’s for Dinner.

The lesson is part of the History 100 theme related to nomadic people. In the fall 9th graders learn about the Bedouins who travel throughout a desert landscape. During winter term students continue that theme by learning about the Mongols, a nomadic group who live in the Asiatic steppe. Classes examine the Peabody’s arctic collections as a way to support their learning about nomadic societies, giving them a chance to apply concept they have learned in class and applying them to another nomadic culture.

The three extreme environments; desert, temperate grasslands, and the frozen north help to highlight the similarities of the three groups. This allows students to pick out important key aspects that are central to any nomadic group, no matter the landscape they inhabit.

Students move between four stations that are set up around the Peabody and work in groups to determine answers to the following questions:

  • What is each object? How was it used?
  • What is the object made from?
  • Why are the objects grouped together?

As class begins we review what it means to be nomadic and how that might be reflected in material culture. An initial activity emphasizes that everything a nomadic person carries has a purpose and the heavier an item, the more important it might be.

This is illustrated by the object depicted below. Students quickly determine that it is made from stone, which automatically demonstrates its importance.  The shape suggests that it was made to hold something, similar to a bowl. They know that whatever it held had to be extremely important. Some students notice that each bowl has some black markings around the rim. It is usually this revelation that helps students to work towards the correct assumption – the bowl held fire, which in the arctic is central to survival.

This stone blubber lamp was collected by William Duncan Strong in Hopedale, Labrador Canada. You can see charring along the edge as well as a hole in the center to hold the wick.
This stone blubber lamp was collected by William Duncan Strong in Hopedale, Labrador Canada. You can see charring along the edge as well as a hole in the center to hold the wick.

This is one of my favorite lessons to do because it gets students to look at objects as cultural markers and to understand how they can be “read” for information about the people who made and used them.

The class is also a source of enjoyment because of how deeply engaged students get, particularly when I give them frustrating answers. “Yes but no” or “no, but close” are two of the phrases I often tell students when they share with me their hypotheses about the objects.

To many students these answers are a challenge. However, the most enjoyable moment is when the entire group rushes across the room to conspiratorially whisper their new answers to me  – least their classmates hear – and jump around in joy to find out they are, in fact, correct.

Best. Part. Of. Teaching. EVER.

Lindsay Randall revealing to the entire class the names and uses of objects at one of the stations.
Lindsay Randall revealing to the entire class the names and uses of objects at one of the stations.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Blubber: It’s what’s for dinner

  1. I have to share with you this archaeological anecdote that fits in with your teaching.
    While excavating an 800-year-old house ruin near Pt. Barrow, Alaska, in the summer of ’52, my Inuit helpers and I found numerous small pieces of smooth wood about the size of your pinky finger. Some were burned at one end, and others were burned at both ends. My helpers knew a lot about the old material culture, but they were stumped in interpreting these things. One day, however, the wife of our leading helper, Mrs. John Adams, visited us to see how we were doing. When I asked her about the little sticks, she put her hands on her hips, laughed and shook here head. “You men just don’t know anything, do you?” They’re wick-tenders … used (exclusively) by women to push up the burning moss wicks in a stone oil lamp.
    I have other examples of these “mysteries,” but I thought this one was particularly appropriate for your class.

    Like

    1. That is an AMAZING story and one I will certainly be sharing with students next week when I run the class a few more times. Thank you for sharing and if you ever have any other anecdote, we would love to hear them!

      Liked by 1 person

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