The Seventh Day of Christmas: Swans A-Swimming

So we are thinking a wee bit laterally with this one, but go with us! The object we are celebrating the seventh day of Christmas with is this intriguing swansdown auvla, which came from Netsilik Island in the Canadian Arctic and dates from the 19th or early 20th century:


This bundle of swan’s feathers really did go a-swimming. It is a device that floats on the water in an ice hole, letting a hunter know by the movement of the feathers when a seal was near.

When the Arctic sea is frozen in the winter, seals live below the ice and come up to breathe infrequently. In the summer Inuit hunters could pursue seals on the open sea in kayaks, but in winter a hunter would have to wait by an ice hole hoping for a seal to surface, waiting patiently for maybe a whole day. When the seal arrived, there would be just one chance to spear it. This was where the seal indicator, or auvla, came in.  The balance made of sinew is placed in the slush over a blowhole. The swansdown indicator, which is very light, is attached to the balance by a twisted sinew thread and floats on the slushy surface of the water. When a seal starts to surface underneath the blow hole, the change in pressure makes the swan’s feathers move about. When the hunter sees the indicator move he knows that a seal is about to arrive and has time to get his spear ready.

Seals were vital to the Inuit communities of Arctic America, providing raw materials for tools and clothing as well as food. In the bleak mid-winter, this fragile swansdown auvla would provide a hunter’s best chance of a good catch.


About uoamuseums

The University of Aberdeen's Museums include King’s Museum and the University's Zoology Museum. The museums can claim to be Scotland's oldest, with records of museums and collections as far back as the late 17th century. Thanks to their status as a Recognised Collection of national significance, the Zoology Museum’s displays are currently being improved, while King's Museum hosts changing exhibitions drawn from across the collections, particularly those formerly in Marischal Museum. Visitors are warmly welcomed to the museums, and there are no charges for admission. Marischal College now houses the Museums Collections Centre, caring for and conserving many of the collections.
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