Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Copper Inuit Harpoon Reproduction

Copper Inuit Harpoon Reproduction
This reproduction of a Copper Inuit sealing harpoon in the collection of the Canadian Museum of Civilization is reproduction number 14 of 17 in the Central Arctic set.  It's based on photos of a disassembled harpoon from the online artifact catalog at the CMC.  I wasn't around when the original was made and used, so take my reconstruction with a grain of salt.  I think all of the pieces are there, so I feel confident about the way everything looks and fits, but I'm still working out the arrangement and position of the sealskin lines and sinew lashing. You can view the original artifact here:

Disassembled Copper Inuit harpoon reproduction as the original appeared in the reference photos.  The main shaft is 95.5 cm long.  When its fully assembled the reproduction is 143 cm long, with a line that is approximately twice the length of the complete harpoon.

Antler socket, riveted to wood shaft
The main shaft of the harpoon is wood and antler.  I used tamarack for the wood, because I know it was used for harpoon shafts in the past and would give the relatively small diameter shaft a good weight.  A spruce or pine shaft would feel feather light by comparison.  The socket is a round section of caribou antler that has been spliced and riveted onto the wood shaft.  

The long bent antler foreshaft fits tightly into the socket.  For the reproduction, I was asked by the client to permanently fix the foreshaft into the socket.  Which isn't a problem.  Given the size and shape of the proximal end of these foreshafts they appear to be designed to be fixed rigidly in place.  Some foreshafts at meant to rotate out of the socket on impact, but I don't think that is the case with this one.  Everything here seems designed for a permanently fixed foreshaft, held in place with friction and reinforced with a braided sinew cord that is threaded through a hole through a hole near the base of the foreshaft.

Braided Sinew 
Tying on the foreshaft was one of the puzzles.  There is a length of braided sinew cord wrapped around the socket of the harpoon in the reference photos, but its obviously just been wound there so it doesn't become separated from the rest of the harpoon.  I assume that this is the braided sinew line used to tie the foreshaft in place.  One end of the line is tied around the neck of the socket on the mainshaft, it loops up through the foreshaft and back down the length of the mainshaft.  It gets tied back on at the neck of the socket and then at two more points along the main shaft.  That's the part that I don't quite understand; I'm not sure what the function is of the extra length of line running down the mainshaft.  

The line is knotted in two places like this
I've copied what I've seen in photos and illustrations, and learned a cool new knot, but I don't really understand the purpose of the line.  I think that it must link up with the harpoon line somehow to create tension in the harpoon line, but I'd don't exactly know how.

I've wrapped the length of the harpoon line around the butt of the mainshaft and then threaded it back through the sinew lashing.  I've seen European whaling harpoons rigged in a similar way and it makes use of the braided sinew cord, but I'm not certain if its the correct rigging for this particular harpoon.

Lori has gripped the harpoon and line where its threaded back through the braided loop and is ready to throw or thrust with it.

Is this right?

Harpoon head on the foreshaft
The harpoon head on the original artifact is antler, with a steel endblade, but we went for antler with a copper endblade on this one.  With the bent foreshaft there are a few options on how to orient the harpoon head on the foreshaft.  The spur of the harpoon head could go on the outside, inside, or on the left or right side of the bend.  I've seen photos and illustrations showing the spur both inside and outside the curve of the foreshaft, but I think that outside the curve is more likely.   Boas illustrates the spur on the outside of the curve in his book, The Central Eskimo, and it would seem to accentuate the spur and the toggling action of the harpoon head as it catches in the seal and slides off.  If the spur were inside the curve, it would be more hidden and it would seem more likely to get caught up in the line instead of toggling unimpeded.

The lanyard is very long and split
That leaves the placement of the sealskin harpoon line when the harpoon head is in place.  Does it lie inside or outside the curve of the foreshaft?  If it was a straight foreshaft, the line would usually lie on the opposite side of the foreshaft as the spur, which would place it inside the curve of the bent foreshaft.  I suspect that's how this line should be positioned as well, because it sets the harpoon head up to slide off and toggle with the least potential for entanglement.  The only thing that makes me pause is that the line on this artifact seems to have a very long split lanyard attached to the harpoon head.  The split is even longer than it appears in the photos here, because it seems to be tied together in one or two spots, creating a series of long split openings in the line.  The split in the line seems so long, that it makes me wonder if the foreshaft is meant to run through the middle of it somehow.  It seems to be an intentional part of the design of the line and I don't think that split is explained or used if the line simply extends down the inside of the curve of the bent foreshaft.  Maybe someone reading knows the answer or has an idea.

With the spur of the harpoon head outside the curve in the foreshaft and the line on the inside, the harpoon head is primed to toggle. 

Photo Credits: Tim Rast


  1. "The split in the line seems so long, that it makes me wonder if the foreshaft is meant to run through the middle of it somehow".

    Functionally, that seems to make a lot of sense - which begs the question: Why is there such a bend in the fore shaft? does it really "accentuate the spur and the toggling action of the harpoon head"? -- or is it simply an expedient function of the natural shape of the raw material from which it was made?

  2. I don't fully understand the function of the bent foreshaft either. You're right that its naturally there in the antler when you cut these long foreshafts. You don't have to add it, but it would be easy enough to make a straight foreshaft as well. The CMC catalog is full of long antler foreshafts which are curved, and some are even scarfed and riveted together out of more than one piece. They could be made straight, but they aren't. They show up in walrus ivory as well. The curve is part of the design and efforts are made to maintain or accentuate that curvebend in the construction of the foreshaft, so presumably it serves some function in how the harpoon is used, but beyond the "toggle assist" I don't know what else it is doing.


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