Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Return to the L'Anse Aux Meadows Harpoon

Un-notched Harpoon Head preforms
After a month of collecting materials, but having to focus on other work, I'm finally getting to sink my teeth into the construction phase of the L'Anse aux Meadows reproductions.  These are a set of 4 Palaeoeskimo tools; a harpoon, knife, scraper and adze.  I'll be taking the pieces that I've started in to The Rooms today for their first side-by-side comparison with the artifacts.

Forest Floors and Paneling
I think that I finally have the tamarack problem sorted.  A traditional furniture maker from Upper Amherst Cove, Mike Paterson, was a big help and selected a couple kiln dried boards from his inventory that were straight grained and relatively knot free.  Which I've learned in the past month is a tall order for tamarack.  Mike also put me in touch with his supplier, Forest Floors and Paneling - the sawmill near Stephenville that cuts and dries the lumber.  It happened to be on the way to the Port au Port chert outcrop, so I stopped in and picked up a few more boards for future projects.

The kiln dried Tamarack
My first impression of working the tamarack is that its as tough as everyone promised it would be.  It really wasn't fun to cut with the circular saw and it has a tendency to split along the growth rings while using the draw knife.  Still, the draw knife planes the wood very nicely and I'll probably spend much of the shaping time on the harpoon shaft working it like a bow with the draw knife.  I don't think it would be as difficult a wood to work while it was green, and the tendency to split along the growth rings would probably be an asset in working the wood with stone tools. 
Two harpoon shafts blocked out
The width of the L'Anse aux Meadows harpoon shaft seems to have been set by splitting the wood between growth rings.  Perhaps working the wood green and using the harpoon outdoors from the very start would help season it slowly enough that warping as it dried wasn't a big issue for the Groswater Palaeoeskimo woodworkers.

Tamarack Interpretive Panel
Last week, while passing through the Mary March Museum in Grand Falls-Windsor, I saw a travelling exhibit of Newfoundland furniture on display in their newly expanded exhibit space.  One of the interpretive panels listed the wood species of the island and it mentioned that tamarack was "oily enough to be water resistant".  That fact is something that I want to follow up on.  The picture that's emerging of tamarack is a softwood that can be worked and split while green, but dries dense, hard and waterproof.  Those all seem like properties that would be assets in a harpoon shaft and for a people whose ancestors came from a treeless environment, it suggests that the Groswater Palaeoeskimo were quite knowledgeable woodworkers, who selected wood with the best properties for the job at hand.

Photo Credits: Tim Rast


  1. I think the expertise of Palaeoeskimo woodworkers has long been underestimated in this Province. It's unfortunate that preservation is generally so poor here and that we only get an occasional glimpses of what was manufactured in wood.

  2. Yeah, the pieces that do turn up all show as much skill as any of their other tools. Aside from the ladle, was there any other signs of working on the wood at Fleur de Lys?

  3. Only the remains of a second almost identical ladle (bottom portion) and a small assortment of flat and squarish pieces with cut marks and worked edges. If memory serves me correct, there was also rectangular shaped 3/4" X 3/4" - two foot long piece. It would interesting to re-examine it in view of what you have from Parks.

  4. I took some photos of the ladle at The Rooms yesterday and saw the tray of worked wood. The wood pieces are shorter and the ends that I could see through the glass don't look as finished as the L'Anse aux Meadows harpoon shaft - but the cross-section and the way the wood is shaped relative to the wood grain looks almost identical. If you haven't seen it yet, you should come take a look at the harpoon shaft. Once you orient yourself with that thing, I think other fragments of worked wood take on a lot more meaning.


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