Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Wapusk Knife and Endblade

Here's a look at the first of the completed Palaeoeskimo tools for Wapusk National Park. The goal with this project is to match the original artifacts, but not as they appear today, rather as they would have appeared when they were complete tools, with all the missing pieces. If some of the blog photos look a little cleaner lately, its because Elaine got this awesome new photo box for the Archaeology and Ethnology Lab at The Rooms.

Pre-Dorset Asymmetric Knife: Chert, spruce, hide glue and baleen. I've only seen a tiny sample of the artifacts from the Seahorse Gully site, and my attention has been focused on hafting them, which is fortunate because the tools are so well worn and used that the hafting area is pretty much all that remains in most cases. The working area of the tool was sharpened and re-sharpened right down to the handle. This knife has a bit of length left to it, but even it has been vigourously resharpened. Asymmetric knives get their name because the lateral margins or cutting edges of the tool are asymmetrical, often they'll have a slightly dogleg or banana-shape to them.

This knife was resharpened repeatedly while it was in its haft. When a stone tool gets dull it can be resharpened by chipping off a new series of flakes along the dull edge, making it slightly smaller. When a tool has a handle on it, it becomes a little awkward to hold when it comes to resharpening, because the handle starts to get in your way. On each edge, you wind up only removing flakes from one face of the knife. When you flip it over to sharpen the opposite edge, the flakes you take off on that side will be on the opposite face. Over time the knife gets narrower and the edge starts to twist away from the centreline.
You can tell that this was a well-used knife. The black line in the photo is meant to show the shape of the S-twist that developed from resharpening. By the end I was starting to get a little frustrated with knapping that twisting edge, wondering how much thinner I had to make it. I wish I would have taken a photo of the wide flat knife that I started with before wittling it down to this twisty little snake. The original artifact never broke, but it was just plain worn out in the end.

In contrast to the flat, lense-shaped knife, which was thinned at the base for hafting, there is also this endblade (artifact left, reproduction right). These things don't come with labels when they are found and its up to archaeologist's to try to work out what they are and how they are used. I'll talk more about this endblade when I have the finished harpoon built around it, but there are a few things about the artifact that make me think it would be hafted as a harpoon head and not a knife.

  1. It has left/right symmetry. Unlike the knife blade which has a slight curve to it, this artifact is more-or-less equal sided triangle, leading to the tip.
  2. It has a D-shaped or Plano-convex cross section. Plano-convex is just science talk for flat on one side and curved on the other. In the photo, the artifact is on top and the reproduction is below. In this case, that flat side is the important bit, because it is there to sit flush against the harpoon head. A knife will have a lens shaped x-section, curved on both sides. That's the case with the hafted knife, even though that lens shape has developed a twist through resharpening.
  3. It has a flat box-base, not thinned like the knife This is kind of risky claim, because the flat base is actually cracked off, which usually implies that part of the tool is missing. However, in this case I think the crack was there from the start and the endblade was built around that break, which is how I knapped the reproduction. Other tools at the site seem to have been built on flakes that would require very little modification in the hafting area. Its almost like they would see the haft in the stone first an then build the tool around it. That's certainly what I'm having to do with the reproductions, so I guess it makes sense if that was how the pre-Dorset approach their tool making at Seahorse Gully as well.
I have to leave now for a few days, but I'll set up a couple pre-scheduled posts that continue this train of thought. I'm going to Alberta to teach a flintknapping workshop on making and hafting Palaeoeskimo stone tools, so its a bit of a working holiday. There's so much variety in the handles and tools that have been found preserved in the Arctic that there are probably analogs there that could be used for stone tools in lots of other parts of the world, so you don't have to be a Palaeoeskimo enthusiast to get something out of the session. The workshop is in Calgary, so I'll have a chance to spend a few day with family as well. I'm sure I'll have pictures when I get back.

Photo Credits: Tim Rast

Photo Captions:
1: New mini-photo studio in the Archaeology Lab at The Rooms
2: The finished Wapusk Assymetric knife reproduction shown above the original
3: The knife in the handle
4: A look down the end of the Wapusk knife and the reproduction at the twist that developed from re-sharpening.
5: Wapusk Endblade: Arifact left, Reproduction right
6: Wapusk Endblade, looking at the broken box base: Artifact top, reproduction bottom
7: Palaeoeskimo tools ready to be hafted

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