Wednesday, August 11, 2010

My Favourite Artifact - A Dorset Soapstone Lamp

It'll fit in the palm of your hand
Archaeologists are frequently asked about their favourite artifact.  This little soapstone lamp is mine.  We found it in 25 pieces at Peat Garden North while I was working at Bird Cove, Newfoundland and Labrador in 2000.  Putting it together was like piecing together a puzzle and as it went together it had more and more of a story to tell.  There is a sooty buildup inside the top half of the lamp.  The bottom half would have been filled with oil, most likely seal oil, and the light and heat would come from a floating wick.  The inside of the lamp below the surface of the oil was clean and the interior walls above the surface of the oil were scorched black by the burning wick.

Notice the gouged holes on either end
Some of the cracks in the lamp were repaired by the Dorset Palaeoeskimos who made it.  The lamp had very thin walls and an even thinner base.  At some point in its life the lamp cracked lengthwise through the middle.  There are several gouged holes at each end on either side of this crack where the soapstone was laced back together.  After I first put it back together I though it was odd that it would break like that through the long axis, if it was going to break through the middle - wouldn't it make more sense to crack across the short axis? 
I make them with thicker walls now
I made a reproduction for the museum in Bird Cove and experimented with filling it with oil and burning a floating wick.  I think I used bacon grease to simulate the seal fat and burned a little cotton wick.  Things started out great, but within the first 30 minutes the thin walled lamp cracked lengthwise down the long axis.  The fracture in the reproduction was identical to that initial, repaired crack in the artifact.  I think that the unusual lengthwise fracture in the original was probably a result of thermal shock very early in the lamp's life.  I thought it was really cool that the folks who made the lamp 1500 years ago suffered exactly the same set back that I did when I tried to burn oil in my little lamp.

Dorset Palaeoeskimo Lamp, ca. 1500 years old

 Photo Credits: Tim Rast

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