Monday, March 1, 2010

Thule Men's Knife

I got this knife stuck in my head (figuratively) after running across it in the archaeology collection drawers at The Rooms on Friday. I was in visiting the Wapusk artifacts and wanted to check on Thule men's knives from Labrador for another project. The example that I found was way cooler than I was hoping for and I had to rush home and start work on it straight away. An elegant weapon for a more civilized age. Ok, maybe its more of a utilitarian tool than a weapon, but it does have nice lines.

Assigning gender to tools and activities in the archaeological record is something that archaeologist's do cautiously. But in the case of ground slate Thule knives its relatively safe to say that there were men's and women's knives, because those gender associations are still alive in Inuit society today. The half moon shaped ulu is the women's knife, while end-hafted triangular-bladed knives are used by men.

I found the blade and handle in two different drawers and I'm not certain that this particular blade fits this particular handle - the blade is one hole short for one thing, but the hole that it does have and the outline of the blade tang fits the handle socket perfectly. The blade is ground slate and the handle is whalebone, which has taken on a rich sepia tone over the years. The lashing hole closest to the blade end of the knife has a groove running across the top, so I know that it was tied in place rather than riveted. The fact that the handle is broken through the hafting socket is a best case scenario for me, seeing a cut away section inside the handle was extremely helpful in creating the reproduction. You can see that one side of the handle is the dense outside of the bone, while the side that broke is the more porous and spongy inside of the bone.

For the lashings I used baleen, which seems like a likely material and one that I needed to work anyhow to lash the Wapusk Palaeoeskimo tools that I'm assembling. Its interesting to see the reproduction knives from theses two cultures side-by-side. The small tools of the Palaeoeskimo were the direct equivalent of the Thule knife and there are even hafting similarities in the socket of the microblade handle and the large whalebone handle - both are tied into a socket that firmly grips the blade along the back and on both sides. These would have been the day-to-day cutting and butchering tools for both groups of people, but that's where the similarities end. The Thule rarely used chipped stone for knives, preferring to grind and polish stone like slate. And, of course, the scale of the tools is radically different - when you compare objects like this side-by-side its obvious why archaeologist's familiar with Inuit tools would start referring to the tiny implements of the Palaeoeskimos as the Arctic Small Tool tradition.

Thule Men's Knife,
Whalebone handle, Ground slate blade and Baleen Lashing
Private Commission

Photo Credits: Tim Rast

Photo Captions:
1: Thule Men's Knife Reproduction
2: Thule Ulu (Women's Knife) and Men's Knife
3: The seperate handle and ground slate blade that the reproduction is based on
4: ready to assemble
5: Comparing the large Thule knife to the much smaller Palaeoeskimo bifacial and microblade knives
6: The finished reproduction


  1. "An elegant weapon for a more civilized age."

    I like it! That pretty much makes this the Thule equivalent to the light saber.

    Sorry Tim, I couldn't resist.

  2. I did kind of steal that line from Old Ben Kenobi...


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