Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Maritime Archaic Indian Harpoon Reproduction

Here's the completed Maritime Archaic Indian harpoon reproduction for The Rooms. Everywhere that I had an artifact for reference I made the reproduction as identical as possible to the source material, using the appropriate materials and finishes. In this case, I had antler harpoon heads and whalebone foreshafts to work from. The sealskin line and spruce foreshaft are speculative, but they use available materials and I tried to work in as many Maritime Archaic references as possible into their design.

Some harpoon foreshafts are designed to bend or release from the harpoon mainshaft and some are designed to be fixed solidly. The Maritime Archaic foreshafts could go either way, but I took the barbed prongs on some of the artifacts to indicate that they were designed to stay firmly planted in the foreshaft. In order to make that work, I notched out a deep "V" shaped notch in the mainshaft, leaving a channel of wood in place to fit in the slot in the foreshaft. I filed the mainshaft down and wrapped part of the end with rawhide to enclose the slot. The barbs on the foreshaft prongs catch on the rawhide - it almost clicks into place.

I don't know how or if the harpoon line would attach to the mainshaft, but I worked around a knot in the shaft and made a hole for the line. The advantage of the line being attached to the mainshaft is that even after the harpoon head comes off, everything stays together and you don't need to worry about losing any of the pieces in the excitement of catching your supper. The harpoon shaft can also function as added leverage for hauling the seal out of the water. I tried to echo the shape of the hole in the harpoon head in the line hole on the mainshaft. Its speculative, but the more of those little references that I can build into a piece the more comfortable I am. If I need to create something from scratch I like to echo shapes and patterns that recur in other artifacts belonging to a particular culture. The long harpoon mainshaft with an oval and circular cross-section is based on the foreshaft, and the rawhide wrapping to hold the foreshaft in place is based on the sinew wrapping around the slot for the harpoon head.

For the line I used bark tanned seal skin. I'd really like to get some bearded seal skin for harpoon lines, but its not easy to come by in Newfoundland, compared to harp seal. I kept the line as simple as possible and made a relatively tight loop through the harpoon head. I figured that since this harpoon head is not intended to toggle, there was no need for a large loop for the harpoon head to spin through and possible get caught up in.

The whole harpoon was antiqued and ochre stained. When the antler, whalebone, and wood are freshly worked they are shades of white and yellowish-white. They aren't coloured like the ancient ochre covered artifacts. I don't always ochre stain Maritime Archaic reproductions. The Maritime Archaic certainly used red ochre, and lots of it, in the burials and other ceremonial contexts, but we know relatively little about their day to day lives. The Beothuk covered their bodies and all of their belongings with red ochre thousands of years later, but I'm not sure if we have definitive proof that the Maritime Archaic used ochre in their day to day lives in the same way. It might have just been something reserved for special occasions. Or not, I don't know. Red ochre certainly helps make an interesting object and given the context that this harpoon is going to be used for (teaching kids in a museum as opposed to sneaking up on seals on the ice) I think its an appropriate finish. It also gave me a chance to try a new ochre paint recipe. Robin Wood's fantastic heritage crafts blog has all kinds of goodies on it, including an egg, linseed oil, and water based paint recipe. I like the look of it, although the weather we've been having in St. John's is really not helping an oil based paint dry. At some point I'd like to try this recipe with fish oil instead of linseed. The Beothuk were reported to have mixed their ochre with caribou grease. Anyone get a caribou this fall?

Photo Credits: Tim Rast

Photo Captions:
First: Complete Maritime Archaic Indian Harpoon reproduction on Harp Sealskin
Second: Reproduction Foreshaft detail
Third: Foreshaft/Main Shaft join detail
Fourth: Line holes on the main shaft and the harpoon head
Fifth: The rawhide binding to catch the forks of the main shaft echoes the sinew wrapping on the distal end of the foreshaft to hole the harpoon head in place
Sixth: Closeup of the barbed harpoon head in the foreshaft socket.


  1. Have I ever told you that I think your work is cool beyond description? What an awesome thing you're doing! Thanks for sharing this stuff- it's great to see how you create.

  2. Wow, that's a beautiful job Tim! What an elegant looking hunting tool. I know there's no direct evidence for the line, but I could imagine it being braided for strength and aesthetic reasons. If Elaine decides to buy me one for my Birthday/Christmas gift - i'd like my line braided :)

  3. Braiding is a good idea - on some of the harpoon heads with small line holes I'll braid a short section of sinew or artificial sinew to create a strong line that will fit through a small hole. These Maritime Archaic harpoon heads have large enough holes that I could run a wide piece of leather through, so I didn't bother with the braided section. It didn't occur to me to braid the whole line, but now that you mention it, that would be a really cool functional modification to make on this design. The entire line could easily have been braided sealskin and still fit through the harpoon head line hole. It would have been a prettier solution to using the thin harp seal skins than cutting the line really wide.

    Now I want to make another one! We'll both have to work on Elaine...

  4. As a proud and satisfied owner of one of your Palaeoeskimo harpoons (complete with inter-changeable Dorset & Groswater harpoon heads), i've always had a lingering doubt as to the functionality and strength of the flat leather line.

    I suspect the flat line (with the added surface area) would become quite a tangle in icy spring seal hunting conditions, and wouldn't be surprised if it became heavy with ice and be more prone to stretching and breakage.

    I'll be adding a braided-line MA harpoon to my letter to Santa-Elaine this evening!


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