Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Early Dorset Palaeoeskimo Harpoon Heads

Early Dorset Palaeoeskimo Harpoon Head Reproductions
Harpoon heads are probably the most diagnostic artifacts found in Arctic and sub-Arctic archaeological sites.  Most of the major divisions assigned to northern cultures by archaeologists are tied to distinctive harpoon head types.  The frequencies and types of other artifacts might change over time and space, but you can count on every culture having their own unique style (or styles) of harpoon head.  I just finished making a pair of Early Dorset Palaeoeskimo harpoon heads.  In the photo on the right, the top one is made from antler, and the bottom one is walrus ivory.

Harpoon head, in situ
At Early Dorset Palaeoeskimo sites, harpoon heads with "slices" in the socket are diagnostic.  The slice is an extra little slit that extends from the base of the harpoon head on the ventral face for a few millimetres.  Earlier pre-Dorset harpoon heads had open sockets, and while open socketed harpoon heads don't completely disappear from the Dorset toolkit, closed socket forms become the norm for the Dorset culture.  Early Dorset sites date in the 2500-2200 B.P. range and they aren't found in as wide an area across the Arctic as earlier and later palaeoeskimo cultures.  For example, Early Dorset Palaeoeskimo sites are not found in Newfoundland and Labrador, although both earlier and later palaeoeskimo groups did live in the Province.  The sites that I used as references for these reproductions are from Baffin Island, Nunavut.

Open socket, sliced socket, closed socket
The slice is a curious feature and I'm not exactly sure whether it has a functional explanation or if its just an interesting design element.  When you see it alongside earlier open socketed harpoon heads, you get the impression that the open socket is slowly closing up until they are completely closed.  An open socket is somewhat easier to make using stone tools than a closed socket, especially in ivory.  If you work antler while its wet, then closed sockets aren't too difficult to make, but they are pretty tedious scraping in a material as tough as walrus ivory.

The slices are only on the ventral face
Perhaps the slice is meant to provide some limited access to the socket to make carving it out a little easier.  However, some of the slices are so narrow, that they wouldn't really be that much help.  I added the slices on mine after I had already gouged out the socket, so they were no help at all in carving out the sockets.  Although, I was using a rotary tool and x-acto knives, so its probably not a fair test.  Maybe the slice has some function in helping release the harpoon head from the foreshaft.
Or maybe the Dorset were so conservative that it took them a few hundred years to accept a completely closed socket harpoon head, and kept opening them up symbolically so that they looked more like grandma and grandpa used to make them.

I'd be very interested to hear from anyone who has seen a sliced harpoon head abandoned in manufacture.  Were the slices made at the same time as the socket? Before or after? Any theories on their function?

Photo Credits: Tim Rast


  1. Tim, I just thought of this- What if the slice is "pressure release" of sorts, God, I know there is a technical word for it-when you attach the shaft, it fits tightly in the socket, and when jammed hard into prey, it could split the socket if the force has no where to go. The split it a "flex point", causing the socket to flex open/closed slightly along that line, instead of the shaft splitting the socket. That harpoon is very tedious to make, like you said, maybe it was a way to make them last longer? Also, it could "pinch closed" a bit on the shaft and hold it tighter without the need to ram it in harder-which also could split it. Am I making sense?

  2. That's an interesting idea. It could be tested by seeing if there is a difference in the frequencies of broken sockets, between closed socket harpoon heads and sliced harpoon heads. Both in collections and in experiments.

  3. Yes I think the slit is to allow the socket to flex open a bit in order to better grasp the shaft.

    By: D Osbourne

    1. That's possible, especially on a material like antler which can handle a bit of flex. I'm a little skeptical that it could work like that on ivory, though, which will shatter before it bends. Ivory is a big tooth, so it has similar flexing properties as our own teeth. I've had chipped and broken teeth, but I don't know of anyone with bent or dented teeth. Designing an ivory tool with any sort of flex point seems like asking for trouble.


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