Thursday, March 19, 2009

New Product: Groswater Palaeoeskimo Knives

So here's the finished Groswater Palaeoeskimo asymmetric knives that I mentioned in an earlier post. I went with two different style handles based on palaeoeskimo knife handles found at two different sites. I'm happy with both of them as archaeological reproductions - there is a random roughness about the baleen wrapped handle that I really like. On the other hand, as a marketable 21st century craft object I'm going to go with the sinew binding.

Groswater Paleoeskimo Knife
Top $115 (Retail price, Tax inc), Bottom $175 SOLD (One-of-a-kind, tax inc)

A lot of the aspects of the baleen knife handle that appeal to me from an artifact reproduction point of view work against it as a craft product. Its more labour intensive, the baleen is much more exotic and expensive to acquire than sinew, and its a little less tidy looking in the finished product. Baleen has a hardness and strength comparable to plastic, unfortunately it can sometimes look like plastic. I intentional left it rough and stringy to better match the original artifacts from Greenland, but needed to seal all those loose ends in with a thin coating of hide glue, which accentuates the shiny plastic look of the baleen. Its a little frustrating because all that adds up to an interesting artifact reproduction, but as a craft product I think its first impression would be messy, over-priced, and probably fake looking. And that's all before the issues of try to export sea mammal parts.

I think I should fire my PR person - that new product review sucked. I probably should have spent more time promoting the product I intend to market and less time bashing the one I don't.

Like most of the reproductions that I make I'm fairly confident about the stone blade while there is a little more guesswork involved in the handle. I don't know of any Groswater Palaeoekimo knife handles that have been found. (Does anyone reading this know of something? - I'd appreciate the heads-up) There are good examples of hafted palaeoeskimo knives from a slightly earlier time period in Greenland as well as a slightly later time period in Labrador. So I've drawn from both of those sources and went with something in between.

Qeqertasussuk, Greenland. This site dates from 3900-3100 years ago and offers a unique glimpse at palaeoeskimo life from this time period because of the exceptional organic preservation. The knife handles here tend to be flattened towards the blade and rounded at the grip. They were composite handles, made from two halves that pinched the blade and were tied together with sinew or baleen. The blades are un-notched and the hafting area of the handle isn't well defined with notches or grooves.

Avayalik Island, Labrador. The later Dorset Palaeoeskimo handles from Northern Labrador are a little different. Instead of two pieces they are made from one piece of wood with a slot cut in one end to accept the knife blade. They seem to be much slighter than the Saqqaq knife handles, some of them taper to a narrow rounded grip that reminds me of a artist's paintbrush handle. Others handles are flat and rectangular. They also have a well defined groove where the binding material, probably sinew, would be tied. The blades here have narrow side-notches.The handles that I came up with borrow from both of these sources. I didn't want to haft a Groswater knife in a Saqqaq handle or Dorset handle, I wanted something in between. The shorter knife with baleen lashings is a little more Saqqaq inspired and and the longer one with the sinew binding is a little more Dorset.

When I make reproductions like this I consciously try to build in a lot of variety. Each one will be different. That's important to me since I don't really know what a Groswater Palaeoeskimo knife looked like and if I make the same form over and over again I can inadvertantly create a style in my mind. That style might not be based on anything other than a pattern that I invented and fell into the habit of using.

Photo Credits:
Top, Bottom: Tim Rast
Middle: scan from Bjarne Grønnow article

Photo Captions:
Top, Groswater Palaeoeskimo Knives. The top knife is made from chert with a softwood handle and bound with sinew and hide glue. The lower knife is the same but with baleen and hide glue lashings.
Middle, Illustration of Saqqaq knife from Greenland. From Grønnow, Bjarne 1994, Qeqertasussuk -- the Archaeology of a Frozen Saqqaq Site in Disko Bugt, west Greenland. In Threads of Arctic Prehistory, edited by David Morrison an Jean-Luc Pilon, Archaeological Survey of Canada, Mercury Series Paper 149.
Bottom, Dorset Palaeoeskimo knife from Avayalik Island, Labrador in the archaeology collection at The Rooms, St. John's.


  1. The baleen knife handle feels much better in the hand, for sure.
    Your PR person is a bit mouthy but he knows the local retail market. To the untrained eye, and those who don't understand the reproduction side of things, hide glue and other natural materials can appear "messy", especially alongside Elfshot's fine jewelry line. So I know what you're saying in regards to choosing the plain handle for your New Product reproduction at a Wholesale Show for retailers.
    On the flip side, Elfshot has some intelligent and loyal customers waiting for a one-of-a-kind reproductions exactly like the baleen knife handle.
    I think you've got your markets covered!

  2. Dear Tim, I saw the book on this site "Threads of Arctic Prehistory", could you tell me a little what is in it? I am looking for a book with many pics and or drawings of artifacts, ulus and such, and history, of course. I wish there was a "Complete Reference" book with pics of all the cool artifacts! Could you suggest some reading, I am looking for not only ideas for my work, but as much as I can learn about the ulu, in particular, and the Dorset knives (look like Polar Bears)and the associated cultures. I hope you can help!


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