Monday, October 12, 2009

Researching the Maritime Archaic Indian Harpoon

I had a great time at The Rooms last Friday - I have a couple more pieces to add to the Parks "finished" pile and I had a productive session looking at Maritime Archaic tradition harpoon parts.

The Maritime Archaic Indians lived on the Island of Newfoundland from at least 5500 years ago until about 3200 years ago. Their ancestors travelled north to the Labrador side of the Strait of Belle Isle as early as 9500 years ago. The style of harpoon that I'm researching is a barbed, non-toggling type of harpoon that was a popular grave item in the Cemetery at Port au Choix, ca. 4400-3300 years ago. The cemetery had excellent bone preservation, both human and faunal.

The harpoon foreshafts were identified at the time as whalebone, but I recall that when Bill Ritchie was examining the artifacts for his interpretive paintings of Maritime Archaic culture for The Rooms that he felt strongly that at least some of them were walrus baculum. Also called Oosik, walrus penis bones are made from a strong, dense bone that would require relatively little modification to create a typical Maritime Archaic harpoon foreshaft. Several years ago, Bill brought back a walrus baculum for me, which he purchased in Cape Dorset through the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative (now Kinngait Co-operative). Its a heavy, club-like bone, which I've been keeping in my office as a first line of defense against zombie attacks.

I took the baculum and a sample of whale rib with me to compare against the foreshafts on Friday. Comparing a 4000 year old worked artifact to a fresh, unworked bone might be a little like comparing apples and oranges, but I'm fairly confident that there are both whale bone and walrus bacculum foreshafts in the collection. Because they are marine mammals, both walrus and whales have relatively porous, light bones. The middle of whale bones are so spongy that they aren't very useful for making tools from, and even the denser outer layers of bone have pore space. Those pores have a stretched, dashed line appearance, giving a kind of very fine wood grain appearance that runs parallel with the long axis of the bone. Walrus baculums are much denser, almost like ivory. They also have pore spaces, but the holes are more circular and wider spaced. Something about it reminds me of cat's whiskers.

Whale bone Detail: Bone foreshaft top, and modern whale rib below

Walrus Baculum Detail: Bone foreshaft top, Walrus Baculum Below. Is it a match? Its different from the other whalebone fragments and has circular pores, like the baculum, although they are larger in the worked example.

I did a very quick, unscientific survey and the majority of the foreshafts I looked at matched the whalebone sample I compared them against. One had circular pores, similar to the baculum, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if there are more in the collection. There are many walrus ivory artifacts from Maritime Archaic Indian sites and some of their hunting tools seem specially designed for hunting larger sea mammals, like walrus and small whales. However, for my purposes, I'm happy to know that I can make a faithful reproduction using whalebone and that I can keep my baculum handy, in case of a zombie outbreak.

The second puzzle that I was trying to work out were how the foreshafts work. There is no wood preservation at Port au Choix and the mainshaft of the harpoon would have almost certainly been made from wood. I could figure out the smaller end, the barbed harpoon heads fit neatly into those sockets. But the opposite end, are wide and flat and frequently forked. Its an unusual design and completely different from the later Palaeoeskimo and Thule harpoons that I'm familiar with. I haven't been able to find similar harpoon foreshafts anywhere else in the world.

The closest analogs that I've been able to find have been Auragnacian split-base points from the Upper Palaeolithic in Europe and some 10,000 year old arrows from Ahrensburg, Germany. Neither of these are exactly like the Maritime Archaic foreshafts, but they got me thinking about this kind of spliced join. They are relatively easy to make using stone tools, you just gouge out matching notches, rotate one of the notches 90 degrees and the two pieces join together, like my hands in the photo. Many of the foreshafts from Port au Choix have additional details added, like little barbs on the forks or holes, but basically, I think they are a modified version of that very simple and very old concept.

What do you think? How would you attach these foreshafts to a wooden shaft? Would they move or are they designed to be secure? How do the little barbs work?

I'll show you my solution in Wednesday's post.

Photo Credits:
First: Tim Rast
Second: Jim Tuck, published online in Museum Notes: The Martime Archaic Tradition
Third-Seventh: Tim Rast
Eighth: Schleswig-Holsteinisches Landesmuseum, published in Ascent to Civilization, 1984
Ninth: Tim Rast

Photo Captions:
First: Tracing and measuring the artifacts
Second: Maritime Archaic Burial at Port au Choix, note the bone foreshafts over each shoulder.
Third: From Top to Bottom, Possible Walrus Baculum Foreshaft, Walrus Baculum, Whalebone Foreshaft, Whale Rib
Fourth: Comparing a foreshaft to a closeup of a whale rib
Fifth: Comparing a foreshaft to a closeup of a Walrus baculum
Sixth: Fitting a barbed harpoon head into the slot of a whalebone foreshaft
Seventh: Detail of the forked and barbed end of a foreshaft - how does that work?
Eighth: Detail of the Ahrensburg arrows - a possible analog for the Maritime Archaic foreshafts?
Ninth: Using my hands to show how the Ahrensburg splice works.


  1. Timmer,

    I'm trying hard not to think of your walrus boner and the threat of zombies because I fear it an inadequate defense. I would rather the baculum of a much larger marine mammel if such a thing exist. I'm thinking something that could be dug out like a canoe in a fashion which would allow me to hide inside of it...if ever a blog post led to therapy this could be it.

    As for the mystery of how those two pieces would fit together I have no clue because my mind keeps returning to the boner...sorry but I have kept my inner fifteen year old in close at hand.

  2. That's an interesting point - I hadn't thought of approaching the problem from that direction. I was thinking more along the lines of; "of all the items in my office, which would be the most useful in a zombie attack", rather than "of all the marine mammal baculums in the world, which would be the most useful in a zombie attack".

    Although I believe whales lack baculum, so I think walrus might be at the larger end of that spectrum as well.

  3. na-nu na-nu!
    This zombie will arrive on Sunday. Please do not greet me or my fellow Orkian with baculum of any species!

  4. Considering the number of times it's been mentioned, I think that the word "baculum" merits its own blog "Label" for future quick and handy reference.

  5. Baculum means 'staff' in Latin (hence 'bacillus', a little stick); but for our purposes we could translate it as 'stiff' or 'stiffy'.

    Martin Kilmer, anonymously.

  6. Baculum in Latin means 'stick' or 'staff', but maybe we should .translate as 'stiff' Or even 'stiffy'.
    Martin Kilmer


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