Alaska Department of Education & Early Development
Alaska State Libraries, Archives & Museums
For Immediate Release
February 27, 2021
The Sheldon Jackson Museum March Artifact of the Month is a pair of Siberian Yup’ik ice creepers or crampons from Saint Lawrence Island (SJ-II-Z-8). The crampons are made of bone and rectangular in shape with a slot cut out down the center. The underside of the crampons includes small points of iron nails put in place for pegs. This set shows heavy signs of use with many scratches, discoloration, rust on the metal components, and damage to the hide ties for lashing – one of the two ties on one of the crampons in the set is broken and would like have been lost had the set not been tied together.
We do not know who made or used the crampons, nor if they were collected by Sheldon Jackson, but we do know that they were accounted for in Dr. James Condit’s 1931-1933 inventory and that they probably date back to at least the early 1900s.1
Similar to modern day crampons, ivory or bone crampons or ice creepers, as they are sometimes called, are used to prevent feet from slipping on ice and snow. For peoples of the northern polar, arctic, and icy regions of Bering Strait, this footwear, waterproof and warm garments and other special equipment such as heavy ivory seal net weights, ice scratchers to call seals, drag handles and small sleds for hauling animals, and sleds, were indispensable for hunting animals and sea mammals on ice and over frozen snow in the spring.
While modern day crampons tend to be made of rubber and steel, traditionally, people of the north made crampons out of walrus ivory or bone. Walrus and bowhead ribs bones were usually preferred due to their being more robust than ivory. The underside of crampons have a sharp component on the underside to penetrate the snow and ice and provide traction. The earliest crampons were entirely made of bone or ivory but once it became available, metal, often in the form of iron spikes or nails, was utilized. Ties for securing the crampon to the boot and foot, were usually made out of seal hide and strung through holes drilled on each side.
Crampons tend to fall into one of three styles.2 The first style is a rectangular-like shape with a slot-like cut-out extending down the center and two rows of parallel pyramidal points along each side. The second style of ice crampons are shaped more like oblong rods and are solid without any slot cut-out. Instead, one side has a slightly rounded upper surface and the opposite, lower side has a flat groove extending lengthwise along the middle, creating two ridges with pyramidal points carved into them. A third style of crampon is nearly identical to that of the second, but includes multiple rows of pyramidal points on the underside. Some crampons have a slot cut-out down the center or are solid across and instead of having pyramidal shapes on the underside, feature metal spikes inserted through drilled holes – this is the style of the March Artifact of the Month. Some crampons are slightly turned up on each end to help retain placement on the foot.
Saint Lawrence Island, the place where the current artifacts of the month originate, is on the far western edge of the North American continent in the Bering Sea. The island is approximately the same size as Long Island and sits just 37 miles from the Russian mainland – on a clear day, you can see Siberia. In St. Lawrence Island Yupik, the name for the island, Sivuqaq, means “something squeezed and dropped out in the water to make an island.” It is a stunning, treeless landscape in the heart of a vast and bountiful marine ecosystem where peoples have relied upon whales, seals, walrus, ducks, and seabirds since time immemorial.
The Sheldon Jackson Museum has a very small collection of artifacts from Saint Lawrence Island, primarily from Gambell. Most of the one hundred sixty-seven objects in the permanent collection from this region are small ivory carvings donated in the late 1990s or 19ᵗʰ century arrows. There are only four ice creepers in the Sheldon Jackson Museum’s collection and only two dozen pairs in the Alaska State Museum.
The Sheldon Jackson Museum’s March Artifact of the Month, other artifacts from Saint Lawrence Island, and much more may be seen at the museum during hours of operation – Wednesday through Saturday 12pm until 4:00pm. General admission is $7, $6 for seniors, and free for those 18 and under or members of either the Friends of the Sheldon Jackson Museum or Friends of the Alaska State Museum.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Director, Division of Libraries, Archives and Museums
1 Dr. James Condit was superintendent of the Sheldon Jackson School beginning in 1922. He served in that position until the fall of 1930 and then returned the following three successive summers to catalog the entire collection of the Sheldon Jackson Museum.
2 For photographic illustration of crampons, see page 126 of E.W. Nelson’s The Eskimo among Bering Strait.
Crowell, Aron and Rosita Worl, Paul C. Ongtooguk, and Dawn D. Biddison. Living Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska. Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Books, 2010
Nelson, Edward William. The Eskimo about Bering Strait. Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983
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