Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Area Man Makes Scraper, Looks at Harpoon

Marking out a cut
The chert endscraper is done and I've had a couple quick trips to the Archaeology Lab at The Rooms this week to check on the harpoon and adze progress.  I think I have enough information now to complete the rest of the reproductions in the L'Anse aux Meadows set without having to go back to the lab again until the final comparison.

Endscraper reproduction and artifact
Hafted Endscraper: The scraper is made on a retouched chert flake and mounted in a softwood handle with sinew and hide glue.  The original artifact was made on a  very thin, fan shaped flake.  The only retouch is on the endscraper edge.  The trickiest part of this reproduction was finding a flake that was already very close to the shape of the artifact, so that I wouldn't have to do very much retouch along the sides.  Its quite a fragile scraper and must have been used for very light work.  Even so, it would have required a bit of skill to use without cracking.

L'Anse aux Meadows hafted endscraper reproduction

Harpoon shaft and reproductions in progress
Each visit with the Groswater harpoon shaft reveals more details of its construction.  It can be difficult to predict which details may turn out to be significant so I'm trying to match everything as closely as possible.  There are always problems that come up while building a reproduction and those problems can have many different solutions.  Determining which solution the ancient craftsperson chose to solve a particular problem is an opportunity to learn a little bit more about their culture.  I also want to make sure that the solutions I build into a reproduction are the same solutions that the original maker chose when they encountered the problem.

The thickness follows the wood grain
For example, I've mentioned how tamarack has a tendency to split between growth rings.  Without access to tablesaws or even metal planes, the Groswater harpoon maker used that property of the wood to his advantage to create a wood shaft of uniform thickness.  By selecting a straight tree with even growth rings and splitting the wood between the rings they were able to create a flat, even harpoon blank.  In cross section, the top and bottom of the harpoon follow growth rings and remain a constant thickness of 23-24mm along its entire length.  All of the additional cuts to the wood were made at right angles to these rings, cutting across all of the growth rings.  I think this was intentionally done to give the maker more control over the cuts and create a stronger shaft that was less prone to cracking.  By cutting the scarf joints across the grain you avoid the risk of a crack starting between growth rings and running away on you.

This is the scarf join on the bottom of the harpoon.  The cut doesn't violate any of the growth rings.  I coloured the top surface green in the photo to help show where the edges are and how the taper is formed.
New foreshaft, old main shaft
I took an antler foreshaft with me to try against the harpoon shaft yesterday and was amazed with the results.  The foreshaft fit into the grooved and scarfed socket in the 2900 year old artifact perfectly, aligning perfectly straight.  The fit was so good that it almost felt like it was snapping into place.  I looked more closely, and there is actually a flat patch of compressed wood inside the channel where the original foreshaft would have been pressed into place.
It fits and aligns perfectly
This channel extends about an inch into the wood and although one of the side walls of the channel is broken away, there is a tiny remnant left of the channel wall on the other side.  The flat wall and compressed wood isn't very noticeable until you know to look for it, but they are preserved well enough that a new foreshaft clicks into place even after almost 3 thousand years of disuse.  A small wedge of wood (or maybe antler) would have formed the opposite wall of the socket and would have be lashed on to create a secure, enclosed channel to hold the foreshaft firmly in place.  The Groswater Palaeoeskimo didn't have drills, so a channel like this is a challenge to make.  They had to open up the wood from the side, gouge out the channel and then close the hole up again with the second piece scarfed and lashed into place.

You can see the open sockets on the harpoon bases.
Conceptually, its the same solution that the Groswater Palaeoeskimo used to create the socket in the base of their harpoon heads.  They couldn't drill the hole up from the base, so they cut it in from the side.  This is what is meant by an "open socket".  The open socket on the harpoon head might be partially enclosed by a lashing that circles around the harpoon head, while the open socket on the harpoon would be closed with an additional wedge of wood tied into place.

Photo Credits:
1: Lori White
2-10: Tim Rast


  1. Love the blog post title! And a great overview of Groswater harpoon construction. The attention to the grain is an interesting observation. I also suspect that you may have briefly excited a few conservators after their initial look at your multi-coloured harpoon shaft - at least until they realize that no actual artifacts were harmed in this investigation :)

  2. After colouring the photos of the scarf joins I wanted to try to work the phrase "brightly coloured scarf" into the title to try and trick some unsuspecting knitters into reading it.

    That got me thinking though about the word "scarf" - Both the neckware and the wood join involved a wrapping of some kind. I wonder if the words are related.


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