Friday, January 6, 2012

Chipped Slate Ulu Preform

Ulu Preform, Baffin Island, Nunavut
We found this ulu preform broken in five pieces and hidden in plain sight on a boulder ridge overlooking a river valley this summer.  It looks like it was broken in manufacture and discarded where it broke.  Artifacts like this aren't as pretty as finished tools, but they have their own stories to tell.  The work done up to this point on the ulu blade would have been erased by the grinding process, so it gives us a glimpse of how these tools were made.

Reproduction and Artifact
The first thing that struck me about the blade was how large it is.  I'm used to seeing the worn down and resharpened blades in museum collections and sometimes forget how big they were when they started.  There are some little slate ulus in the collections from Labrador with blades that have be so worn down that they look like toys.  If this blade was finished and hafted like the reproduction in the photo it would have more than an extra inch of useable blade.

The Hot Side
The ulu preform is uniform 5-6 mm thick, with the thickest portion toward the blade edge.  Its more-or-less a quarter circle, with a squared edge at the top where the handle would attach and edges that are a little shy of 90 degrees from each other.  It would have been about 25 cm wide across the blade and about 15.5 cm tall from blade to stem.  The blade and both edges are worked by short, bifacially removed flakes.  The squared edge across the top wasn't chipped - it was already the right shape.

Chipped slate blades in manufacture
There's really only a few minutes worth of work done on the blade up to this point, although the stone isn't from the immediate area, so the person who broke it still probably regretted it.  Maybe they selected a couple nice flat slabs from the outcrop and had a back-up slab on hand to start working when this one broke, or maybe they had to walk all the way back to the stone source.  The reproductions on the left are from the ground stone workshop I taught in Calgary last winter.  The blanks were trimmed from slate slabs using hammerstones, and look pretty much identical to the archaeological example. Nice work folks!

The working edge was trimmed bifacially.  Which is interesting, because ulus are generally sharpened on only one face. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, I also find it easier to trim the stone bifacially and add the unifacially ground edge at the end.

The blade, in situ
 Despite the stone's best efforts to blend in with its surroundings, a couple of the sharp eyes on the crew were able to pick the pieces out.  The four pieces from the top of the preform were found within a few centimetres of each other and the blade section was spotted a couple metres away.  There were a few tent rings and a cache on the same ridge, but the preform wasn't found directly associated with any particular structure.

The lichen gives the impression of great age, but I've been told that this sort of jewel lichen can grow within a few years, given an adequate supply of bird poop.

Arctic Camo - two pieces in this photo
Its tough to date.  The style is certainly Inuit and slate tools were made from the time the Thule arrived in the Eastern Arctic by 800 years ago up until the 20th century.  There's nothing at the site to suggest that its recent or historic, so it probably falls somewhere between 100 and 800 years old.  My hunch is 100-200 years old, but I don't really have anything to support that.

It might have looked something like this in the mind of the maker.

Photo Credits:
1-3: Tim Rast
4: Michael Turney
5-9: Tim Rast


  1. Nice Find Tim. It's a good thing you have the sharp eyes for artifacts like this

  2. Thanks, Allan, but I can't take the credit for spotting it. I think Corey and Charles found most of the pieces.


Related Posts with Thumbnails