Friday, June 25, 2010

L'Anse Aux Meadows Groswater Palaeoeskimo Harpoon

The harpoon; reproduction and artifact
Here's a look at the completed Groswater Palaeoeskimo harpoon reproduction based on that amazingly preserved wood shaft found in a bog on Newfoundland's Northern Peninsula.  The tamarack harpoon shaft was recovered during archaeological excavations at L'Anse aux Meadows in the 1970s.  The original artifact was radiocarbon dated to 2970+/-110BP and this reproduction illustrates how it would have looked when it was first made and used almost 30 centuries ago.

The artifact was a remarkably complete and well preserved harpoon mainshaft
wrapping the icepick onto the mainshaft
The harpoon has a square cross-section with slightly rounded edges.  Its remarkably consistent in width and thickness along its 121 cm length, varying only a millimetre or two between 23 and 24 mm from end to end.  It only deviated from that constant diameter where the wood worker removed wood to allow another piece of the harpoon to be strapped into place. There is a long taper at the base where something would have been scarfed onto the mainshaft.  Sometimes Palaeoeskimo harpoons were scarfed together out of several short sections of wood, especially at sites above the treeline where the only available wood would be driftwood. 
Most of the ice pick is under the lashing
The L'Anse aux Meadows harpoon is long enough as it is, so I don't believe that an extra wood section would have been lashed to the scarf.  I think its more likely that it was an icepick of some kind, made from bone, antler or ivory.  We decided to use whalebone on the reproduction.  Ice picks were handy tools when hunting seals on the ice, to test for dangerously thin ice while walking,  to chip away and enlarge a seal's breathing hole, or to pin into the ice to create added leverage while hauling the harpooned prey out of the water.

The narrowings on the artifact told me wear to add the lashings on the reproduction
The harpoon line passes through the strap
A narrowing was added to the shaft close to the foreshaft socket that I believe was designed to lash the harpoon line in place.  Having some place on the mainshaft to secure the harpoon line would allow some tension to be put in the line to help secure the harpoon head and it would also keep all of the harpoon pieces together when the the seal was stabbed.  I can't be certain exactly how this lashing would have worked, but I think the narrowing in the wood indicates where the line was attached.

A clever slipknot to create line tension
Here's an interesting trick that I just learned from Eskimos and Explorers by Wendell Oswalt to attach the harpoon line to this type of lashing.  Rather than thread the entire line through the lashing, a single small loop could be threaded through.  This creates a kind of slip knot that lets the harpooner place tension in the line to help secure the harpoon head, but the moment that the prey tugs on the harpoon head it would let go and allow the harpoon head to detach and toggle.   If you search out Oswalt's book, he also has an excellent description of how ice picks were used to create leverage while hauling a harpooned walrus out of the water.

The socket still works
I think when you see the socketed end of the main shaft next to the reproduction you can see how carefully shaped and well-preserved the artifact is.  It might look like a random fracture at first, but you can see how carefully prepared the the scarfed surface is, how the binding area for the scarf lashing is carved out, and even the depth and shape of the socket for the foreshaft.  The lashing is there to secure a small wedge of wood that forms the other half of the open socket.  I explained that in a previous post.

There is some damage to the socket, but you can still see the well defined lashing area and the start of the scarf join at the tip of the harpoon.
The harpoon head would toggle inside the seal
I made two copies of the harpoon, one for L'Anse Aux Meadows and one for myself.  Both are identical, with a Tamarack shaft with sealskin bindings, a whalebone ice pick, antler foreshaft, antler harpoon head, chert endblade with sinew lashings and a sealskin line with a braided sinew lanyard.  The chert endblades are based on artifacts that were found in the Groswater component at L'Anse aux Meadows and tied on to open socket, Groswater style toggling harpoon heads.

You can read the previous posts documenting the reconstruction of this artifact by following these links:

L'Anse aux Meadows Harpoon - First Impressions

The Hunt for Tamarack

Return to the L'Anse aux Meadows Harpoon

Area Man Makes Scraper, Looks at Harpoon

Adze and Harpoon Build Photos

The complete set of Palaeoeskimo artifacts and reproductions for L'Anse aux Meadows

Photo Credits: Tim Rast

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely incredible job Tim.
    I used to think that the scoop John found at FdL was the neatest organic artifact I had seen, but this harpoon surpasses it by far!


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