Monday, June 6, 2011

Whalebone Whatzit

What is this thing
At the end of May, I had a chance to work on an unusual whalebone artifact reproduction based on an original piece recovered from a Dorset Palaeoeskimo context at Port au Choix, Newfoundland and Labrador.  I really don't know what it is, but its pretty cool.  Its pointed on one end like a large foreshaft or ice pick, has some scoring on the underside similar to a sled runner, a hole along one lateral edge and a polar bear head carved at the opposite end.  It looks like there was a hole crossing from side to side through the underside of the bear head, that has since cracked open.

Reproduction Palaeoeskimo Whalebone object - 34.5 cm long

The underside is incised porous bone
This was a one-of-a-kind reproduction that was commissioned as a gift for the archaeologist who found the original artifact.  Of course, as archaeologist's we don't get to keep the things we find, because they belong to everyone.  That's one of the reasons that I got started in flintknapping and artifact reproductions in the first place - I wanted my own arrowheads and harpoons and whalebone whatzits.  

Rib and my printed patterns of the artifact
The first step in making this reproduction was viewing and photographing the original artifact, which required a little bit of skulking, because the person on the receiving end works in the lab where the artifact is stored and we didn't want to spoil the surprise.  For a Palaeoeskimo artifact, its quite large - about 34.5cm long.  The top of the artifact is compact cortical bone and the underside is spongy cancellous bone.  It has a very slight concave curve to it, but its more or less straight.  Ideally I would have liked to have made the reproduction from a section of mandible, but I didn't have one available.  Instead, I used the inside curve of a humpback whale rib, which wound up providing a very good match in both the dense and spongy bone layers.

Throat grooves
The original artifact has some breaks and damage through the holes and grooves on the underside of the carved bear head.  In order to make the reproduction look like the original artifact I had to make a complete object and then break it to match the existing damage.   Maybe seeing the unbroken version of the artifact will help someone figure out what the artifact might have been used for.
Originally it had a hole
I think the two deep grooves running lengthwise under the throat of the bear head were there to provide access points to the hole running across the width of the bear head.   They would have helped in gouging out the hole, but they are large enough and long enough that they might have served some other function as well.

When it was found the hole through the bear head was broke open (reproduction shown)
The pointy end is blunted
The rib bone that I started from had the right texture, but it was bleached white, so I had to antique it.  I started by soaking it in tea to give it a warm golden colour and then worked ochre, charcoal, soapstone dust and oil into different parts of the reproduction to match the aged look of the artifact.  There were a few nicks and dents, especially in the middle third of the object that I tried to match as well.  It seemed to me like most of the wear was concentrated in the middle, where the incise grooves running the length of the objects back were faded out and indistinct, compared to the head of the bear.

Bear head and lateral hole
I really appreciate the access to this unusual find that the archaeologists from Memorial University of Newfoundland gave me in order to make this reproduction.  I love working on these sorts of puzzles.  This artifact and thousands of other stone and organic artifacts are part of their ongoing research at Port au Choix.  What do you think? Have you seen anything like this artifact before?  Any idea what it might have been used for?

The underside showing the offset hole and the long incized grooves running back from the head.

Photo Credits: Tim Rast


  1. It looks a little like a netting needle. Twine, leather cord, or whatever is wound through the hole and around the needle, which is used both to carry the cord and to gauge the size of the holes. Note styles B and D in this illustration:

    But it ought to have a notch at the other end, unless they wound the cord around the base. Usually it's wound lengthwise to make smoother passage.

    p.s. Nice site. Stumbled on while looking for pictures of whale bone tools.

  2. Yeah, that idea gets tossed around. These things do have some features (like the holes and associated grooves) that give the impression that they are designed to guide cords somehow. It's been suggested that the Palaeoeskimo were using nets in their seal hunting at Port au Choix.


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