Monday, November 8, 2010

Sicco Harpoon Heads

Sicco Harpoon Head reproductions
I'm on the road for a couple of days helping out an artist visiting Newfoundland from Nunavut.  I'll post more about that when I get back, but in the mean time, here's a look at some Sicco harpoon heads that I made recently.  Two of them went to a thesis supervisor and her student to celebrate the completion of an archaeology Master's degree.

from Schledermann and McCullough 1980
Sicco harpoon heads are an early, decorated form of the Thule Type 3 harpoon head that show up in the earliest Thule sites in Nunavut and Greenland, although the name "Sicco Open Socket" originally comes from collections described at Point Barrow, Alaska (Park and Stenton 1998, McCullough 1989).  I primarily used Park and Stenton's Ancient Harpoon Heads of Nunavut, and photos and illustrations of Sicco harpoon heads found on Ellesmere Island by Peter Schledermann and Karen McCullough as references to make these reproductions.

Walrus Ivory and antler
The Sicco harpoon heads were a new form to me, so I decided to make them in a variety of sizes and materials just to get the hang of them.  They have a bit of a complex shape, with an asymmetric spur, open socket and lashing slots, so in addition to printing 1:1 paper patterns of the harpoon heads, I also sculpted a 3D model in modelling clay to help me visualize some of the specific angles and shapes that are peculiar to this style of harpoon head.  According to Park and Stenton, Sicco's range in size from 7-15 cm and are primarily made from ivory and sometimes antler or bone.  The largest one that I made is made from walrus ivory and is 13.4 cm long.  The other two are antler and are 9.3 cm and 7.8 cm long.

Sicco on foreshaft
Despite the range in size, all three seem big enough to be functional and all fit securely on the same foreshaft.  Its necessary to loop sinew or baleen through the lashing slots to close the open socket to use the harpoon head.  The smallest one, fit with an endblade and sinew lashings to close the open socket fits snuggly on a whalebone foreshaft and could easily have been used for seal hunting.

Antiqued and assembled
One of the defining characteristics of the Sicco harpoon heads is the presence of incised line decorations.  The lines seemed to accentuate the natural contours of the harpoon head.  To me, the finished effect is kind of like air brushed muscles on a superhero costume, highlighting and streamlining the design.  The large ivory harpoon head was left pristine white and the larger antler piece was antiqued in tea.  Those are the two pieces done for the supervisor and her student.  Before I sent them off, I experimented a bit with endblades.

Ground slate endblades
I wanted to try making a ground slate and copper endblade for each of them.  The Sicco harpoon heads found on Ellesmere Island by Schledermann and McCullough have an endblade slot width of 1.5 mm - 2.2mm.  This is really quite thin; for comparison, a penny is 1.5 mm thick.    It turned out to be too thin for the ground slate endblade on the largest harpoon head.  Those endblades broke while I was trying to fit them.  I could get slate endblades thin enough to fit on the two smaller harpoon heads, but they felt very fragile.  At that thickness, metal endblades seem like a much safer option.

Slate endblades less than 2mm thick cracked while fitting them into the narrow endblade slot

Hammered copper rod needs to be trimmed
To make the copper endblades, I used sections of the same heavy copper ground wire that I use for pressure flakers.  The wire wasn't big enough to make a passable endblade for the largest harpoon head so I'll have to get some bigger lumps of copper to try hammering the next time I make one of these large Thule harpoon heads.  I did get a couple nice endblades that fit the smaller harpoon heads, with comparable dimensions to copper endblades found with the Ellesmere Island Sicco harpoon heads.  I hammered the rough shape out on an anvil and ground the edges to give the endblade its final shape and sharpness.

Antler Sicco with copper endblade
I need to start using more copper and iron in my Thule reproductions.  Metal use and the quest for new sources of copper and iron is an important part of the story of the spread of the Thule culture across the Arctic.  Meteoritic iron and Norse copper in Greenland seem to have been a powerful draw that helped pull the early Thule pioneers quickly eastward into the Canadian Arctic and Greenland from Alaska.

Sicco Harpoon Head Reproduction: antler, sinew, copper ($175 Cdn, tax inc)
McCullough, Karen M.
1989 The Ruin Islanders: Early Thule Pioneers in the Eastern High Arctic. Archaeological Survey of Canada, Mercury Series Paper 141, Canadian Museum of Civilization, Ottawa-Hull.

Park, Robert W. and Douglas R. Stenton
1998 Ancient Harpoon Heads of Nunavut: An Illustrated Guide.  Parks Canada, Ottawa

Schledermann, Peter and Karen McCullough
1980 Western Elements in the Early Thule Culture of the Eastern High Arctic. Arctic 33 ( 4): 833-841

Photo Credits:
1, 3-10: Tim Rast
2: Screen capture from Western Elements in the Early Thule Culture of the Eastern High Arctic by Scheldermann and McCullough, 1980


  1. These are darn cool Tim. I realize that having a favourite harpoon head type is the epitome of geekdom, but Sicco as always been mine (followed very closely, of course, by Thule Type II, which it displaced at some point.)


  2. Thanks Peter - this project was my introduction to Sicco harpoon heads, and I agree they are very cool. The attention to detail and the effort that went into the incised decoration make me think the Thule folks knew how badass they were as well.

  3. Hi Tim,

    I would really love to see you attempt a harpoon used particularly in Central Coast and Lower Mainland of BC, Canada, the toggling harpoon (also frequently written as the valve harpoon). It would really help blossoming archaeology students to see it in action! I remember taking a class and we learned about them but I really had no idea how they worked and it's a pity. You make great stuff so I hope you have the time to attempt one more harpoon!


    A Fan

    1. I think I know the style that you are thinking of - with the composite heads made from two or three seperate bone or wood pieces tied together. It would be a fun project, and those are pretty cool looking. Someday I'll get to it, I'm sure.


Related Posts with Thumbnails