The British Museum's collections, £16.99
Presented by Sir John Ross, Sir Joseph Banks
On loan from the Natural History Museum Mineralogy 87562
Lance with a blade made from meteoric iron
Inughuit, early 18th
From north-west Greenland
This type of knife was made and used by the Inughuit (Polar Inuit or Eskimo) of north-west Greenland. Similar pieces of iron were used to make all-purpose knives for butchering animals, preparing meat, eating and making tools.
This example was collected in 1818 during the search for the Northwest Passage by the explorer Sir John Ross (1777-1856). The Inuit told the expedition, through the Greenlandic interpreter and expedition artist Hans Zakaeus, that they believed that they lived alone in the world and thought Europeans were gods.
Living so far north the Inughuit had little access to wood, so that all equipment, including sleds, had to be made of bone and ivory. However, unlike most Native Americans, they did have access to iron, from the Cape York Meteorites, the remains of a meteor which came from the centre of a small (4.5 billion-year-old) planet that collided with the earth around 10,000 years ago. Three large pieces, named Dog, Woman and Tent by the Inuit, were shown to the American explorer Robert Peary (1856-1920) in the 1890s. Flakes of the metal (iron, with nickel impurity) were taken off the meteorites with hand mauls and used in harpoons, lances and knives, and traded thousands of kilometres westwards through Canada. Peary took the meteorites to New York, where they are exhibited in the American Museum of Natural History.
R. Gilberg, 'Polar Inuit' in Handbook of North American Ind (Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press, 1984), pp. 577-94
J. Ross, A voyage of discovery, made un (London, John Murray, 1819)
M.L. Wayman, J.C.H. King and P.T. Craddock, Aspects of early North America, British Museum Occasional Paper 79 (London, The British Museum Press, 1992)