Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Puzzling Organic Artifacts from Nain

Laying out the organic artifacts
By far, the most interesting meeting so far this week was with Amelia Fay, an archaeologist at MUN who is doing her Ph.D. research in Nain, Labrador.  She is focusing on Mikak, a remarkable woman who helped shape Inuit-European relations along the Labrador coast during the 18th century.  This past summer, Amelia dug a portion of Mikak's house on Black Island and I had an opportunity yesterday to take a peak at some of the wood, whalebone and ivory artifacts that she found.

The function of some of the organic artifacts isn't clear and Amelia gave me permission to post a few photos in case anyone has any suggestions of what they might be.  They appear damp in the photos because up until now they have been stored in damp moss, to keep them from cracking and drying out and to prevent bacteria from growing, until they can be conserved and permanently stabilized.

base of a harpoon foreshaft
The first artifact is a modified whalebone harpoon foreshaft.   The bottom two-thirds of this artifact are familiar. You can see a reproduction of a similar foreshaft in the post: How Does a Thule Harpoon Work. The distal end (on the right in the photo below ) has been re-worked. It should end in a point that fits into the drilled out base of a harpoon head, but the one from Mikak's house is blunt and a length of iron was found embedded in the end.  You can see the gouged out channel on the narrow end of the foreshaft and the bit of iron that fits it is in the plastic bag below it.  The iron has a spot on the end that looks like something else was attached to it, like it was the base of something metal that extended out from the end of the modified foreshaft.  The question is: was the spike meant to repair the broken foreshaft so that it could be re-used on a harpoon or did the iron change the function of the object into something else?

Whalebone foreshaft, notice the gouged out socket to accept the iron object in the baggy below.
Probably my favourite artifact is this toggling harpoon head made from walrus ivory.  It was a surface find, which is why one side of the object is desicated, weather-bleached and white and the the other is a warm brown colour.  Its interesting because its so unusual.  It was found in situ with fragments of the iron endblade and rivet that held it in place.  The socket at the base for the foreshaft, is perfectly round and the holes for the harpoon line are also round and appear to have been made with a drill.  All of those features and its context clearly indicate that it was an historic Inuit harpoon head, but the general shape, especially the symetrical barbed base are not typical of Inuit harpoon heads.  At least none that I'm familiar with.  The general outline of the artifact looks more Palaeoeskimo.  Amelia told me that there are Palaeoeskimo sites nearby, and I wonder if this isn't a Palaeoeskimo harpoon head that was modified later to fit an Inuit harpoon.  Has anyone else seen a harpoon head quite like this one?
At first glance it looks more Palaeoeskimo than Inuit

But the holes are round, the Palaeoeskimo didn't drill holes and made their harpoon heads with flat, rectangular sockets.

Its well made, following the midline of a walrus tusk.  That coarse stripe running up the middle is the pulpy inside of the tooth, although on a well worn tusk, it can be exposed at the surface. 

Amelia's crew even found the rivet that held the metal endblade in place!

The object below is one that has me stumped, although its so carefully and specifically made, I think someone will recognize it.  Its a tapered piece of whalebone.  There are a couple cut marks across the body of it, but I think the biggest clue to its function is the little knob at one end.  It has a couple rivet holes going through that knob and is offset to one side, so that whatever it fit onto would wrap around it on three sides.  Its seems like a weak join if it was an icepick and I don't really see any wear on the tip of the artifact.  There are metal scrapers that wrap around handles on three sides, but this doesn't seem quite right for that.  The closest thing that I've come across are scoop or ladle handles, but I haven't seen anything that exactly matches this piece.

You can see the cut marks in the middle of the thing
You can see one of the rivet holes just where the projection meets the widest part of the object

The knob, is carefully cut away so that something will fit around 3 sides of it
Perhaps you see something familiar in the rest of these pieces? If you have any ideas, please leave a comment or get in touch with me ( and I can pass on your ideas to Amelia.

This is a wood knot with a series of drilled holes in it.  The holes seem to mark a roughly cross-shaped pattern.  Its broken on the other side and its tough to say how much more wood was originally attached to it.  It reminds me a bit of the target piece in a pin and cup game, although the holes may be too small for that.

This is a large whalebone button.  Its a good size for the spinning disc in a buzzer game, but there is a  channel between the two holes in the middle that make it look like it was attached to something the same way that a button is sewn on.  But its a very big button.  Amelia said that they found other bone discs like this, but I think this was the only one with holes in it.

This wood object looks like it was probably a handle.

The same object as in the photo above. There is a hole in the end where a metal spike or the tang of a knife could have been wedged in place.

Whalebone with 3 holes drilled in it - a sled runner?  

These are two large sheets of whalebone.  Not baleen, actual bone.  The porous interior of the bone has been scraped away leaving a thin sheet of hard dense bone.  I've never seen whalebone worked like this.  Its as if its been turned into plywood.  These are very large - you can see a stool sitting under the desk for scale.  Amelia found them in the entrance passage of the house.  They're so big, I wonder if they were used like plywood to help defined the floor, walls, or roof of an entrance tunnel?
Edit: Listen to Amelia discuss her research on CBC Radio's Labrador Morning Show: 
Black Island archeological dig leaves researchers puzzled...

Photo Credits: Tim Rast
Thanks to Amelia Fay for permission to post photos of her research here!


  1. I am a decendant of Mikak I wish our family would get her artifacts but I know we will not or you should have at least left her alone you, don't see my family digging up your family do you

  2. Hi Anonymous,

    I appreciate your concern.

    One of the responsibilities of an archaeologist excavating under a permit is to ensure that artifacts are conserved and stored in a safe manner so that future generations will have access to them -- this includes you and your family and I sincerely hope that someday you have the opportunity to see and hold these artifacts from Mikak's life. Work like this ensures that you and all the people of the Province will have these objects to remember Mikak and hopefully let more people know what a remarkable woman she was.

    I think its also important to note that these artifacts come from Mikak's house. No one is digging up or studying Mikak's remains. The artifacts shown here are the bits and pieces from everyday life that were lost or thrown away. Even so, the archaeologists working on this project are very mindful of the person who owned them and are working with the utmost respect to preserve them and share Mikak's incredible contribution to the history of the Labrador coast and this Province.


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