Monday, March 22, 2010

Harpoons, Harpoons, Harpoons

Today is the shipping day for the Wapusk order. I'm heading into The Rooms to help Elaine pack up and send off the original artifacts along with the reproductions. They go back to Park's conservation lab in Winnipeg before heading to their new home in Wapusk National Park. The pre-Dorset harpoon is the biggest and, I think, the coolest piece in the set. It was interesting to me because its a style that is similar to forms that we have in sites in Newfoundland and Labrador, but from a slightly earlier time period. Its sort of an ancestral harpoon head style to the Groswater harpoon heads and endblades that are sprinkled throughout sites in this Province.

While I had it in the house, I realized that I had good examples of harpoons and harpoon heads spanning most of the Palaeoeskimo time period and even a couple from other cultures that came before and after them. So I made a little family portrait. The 7 harpoon heads are shown in chronological order from left to right and the five in the middle are all related. The Maritime Archaic Indians also used toggling harpoon heads, but generally speaking barbed harpoons preceded toggling harpoons, so it works to start the sequence off. The general trend in the harpoon heads made by the Palaeoeskimos was towards a simpler design with more symmetry along the central axis of the harpoon. The Thule harpoon head at the end represents the introduction of a new harpoon technology into the Arctic and marks the end of the Palaeoeskimo time period. (click to enlarge the photo)

For the Wapusk harpoon, I spent a fair bit of time thinking about the foreshaft and socket. First off, I decided to build the socket in two pieces, using a sloping scarf join tied together with sealskin to lash the socket together. Its a better match for archaeological examples of Palaeoeskimo harpoons and the two piece socket is actually an easier design to make using stone tools. There was also the problem of how to use the hole in the foreshaft. The function of the hole is to keep the foreshaft from being lost, so I could either tie it to the mainshaft using a separate cord, or thread the main harpoon line through the hole. I was leaning towards using a separate cord before I started experimenting with both options, but in the end I decided to go with the main line through the hole. The advantages of using the main line seemed to outweigh the advantages of using a separate cord.

Main harpoon line through the foreshaft:
  • Pro: Simpler solution - no extra materials required and all pieces of the harpoon are tied together into a single package.
  • Pro: The position of the hole in the foreshaft allows for tension in the line that simultaneously holds the harpoon head onto the foreshaft and helps pop it off when pressure is applied to the barb (see video below)
  • Pro: The line is a good fit for the size of the hole in the foreshaft - the hole is larger than necessary if a separate cord were used.
  • Pro: With the line through the foreshaft it is much more likely that the foreshaft will be pulled from the mainshaft when the prey animal tries to escape, which is consistent with their design. The bi-pointed foreshaft seems designed to slide out of the mainshaft socket just as easily as the harpoon head is designed to slide off the other end.
Separate Line holding the foreshaft in place:
  • Pro: The foreshaft can be fixed firmly to the mainshaft.
  • Con: The tapered ends of the foreshaft seem designed to slide out of the mainshaft socket, so then why would it be tied in firmly?
  • Con: Extra cord is needed and it adds an unnecessary potential for entanglement between the main harpoon line and the extra line to secure the foreshaft.

Pre-Dorset Harpoon for Wapusk National Park: Chert endblade, walrus ivory harpoon head with baleen lashings, antler foreshaft and two part spruce main shaft with sealskin lashings and sinew and sealskin harpoon line.

Photo Credits: Tim Rast

Photo Captions:
1: The Wapusk Harpoon, based on artifacts found at the Seahorse Gully site in Manitoba
2: Harpoon heads of the Arctic and Sub-Arctic
3: The mainshaft socket in two parts and the antler foreshaft
4: The assembled harpoon, showing the main line passing through the foreshaft
5: The complete harpoon
6: Video of the harpoon head toggling


    1. Nice Pre-Dorset harpoon! I wonder if you are the first person to make one of these since pre-Dorset times? I like your solution to the foreshaft line hole problem. Your simplified solution makes a lot of sense.

    2. Hi Tim
      Excellent work as usual. I really liked seeing the various harpoon heads all lined up together. What a perspective!

    3. Thanks guys! I think the Late Dorset harpoon head in the photo is the very first harpoon head that I ever made, over a decade ago. I'll have to make another pre-Dorset harpoon head, its nice to have a set like this on hand to show how the harpoon head evolved.

      I'm not sure if anyone else has made a pre-Dorset harpoon in the last few thousand years. I'd be interested to see if they have though - its always good to see someone else's perspective on how these things might have worked.

    4. Amazing work...really appreciate the attention to detail and explanations. I've really learned a lot about harpoons, not to mention the cultures, reading your posts.


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