Monday, March 11, 2013

Deciding on a Dorset Palaeoeskimo Parka (not a Beothuk Bow)

Dorset soapstone carving of
a person wearing a parka. This
artifact is on display in The Rooms,
 here in St. John's.
I was looking for a new project to keep me busy this spring.  I've been busy with reproduction work, but a lot of it seems to be based on artifacts that I've worked with in the past.  I wanted to try something new.  There are a couple projects that I've been interested in tackling for a while, a Beothuk Bow or a Dorset Palaeoeskimo Parka.  Both projects are intriguing, because there are no complete existing reference artifacts available for either reproduction.  In both cases, there are some good general representations of the artifacts from contemporary artwork, and some surviving artifacts that illustrate specific details of their construction, but there is a lot of room in between for a reproduction to answer some specific questions about how these things were made, used, and appeared in real life.

This plate shows Beothuk bow and arrow fragments.  Parts labelled #3 are bow pieces and parts labelled #4 are child-sized bow and arrow fragments.  What's the deal with the groove running down the centre of the bow?  Is that for some sort of backing?

Another tiny Dorset carving of a person in a
parka.  Like the one above, its from northern
 Labrador and is on display in The Rooms.
I could have gone either way, so I posted a poll on my Elfshot Facebook page and the Dorset Parka won by one or two votes.  That was enough to tip the scales for me and I've started down the parka path.  The Dorset were pretty prolific artists, especially during the Late Dorset period and they left behind quite a few representations of human beings.  Many of them appear to be carvings of themselves, and despite the fact that they are usually tiny, some of the figures give us some very interesting details about their clothing.  Probably the most intriguing thing about Dorset carvings of people wearing parkas is that the parkas don't appear to have hoods.  Instead, they have distinctive, high three-sided collars.

Detailed Dorset Carving
The carvings are detailed enough that different styles and cuts of clothing are recorded in stone, wood, or ivory, which probably reflect the clothes worn during different seasons, by different regional groups, or at different times in the past.

There are also a couple Inuit stories about the Tunit which describe aspects of their clothing.  The people living in the Eastern Arctic when the Inuit arrived, the people they called Tunit, most likely refer to the people who archaeologists call Dorset Palaeoeskimo.  I'm a sucker for the Tunit myths and probably believe them more often than I should as a skeptical archaeologist, but that's my bias.  Over the next few weeks, I'll be sharing my research, asking for advice, and documenting the process of making a skin parka in a Dorset Palaeoeskimo style.

Photo Credits:
1, 3: Tim Rast
2: Plate from Howley 1915 from NF Heritage Website
4: Plate 2 from Ancient People of the Arctic, Robert McGhee 1996.


  1. any chance that the collars are actually hoods turned inside out? That's how most people up here where hoods on parkas and Canada Goose jackets, when they are not on top of their heads. It turns the hood into a nice collar and keeps the snow from going down your neck and filling up your hood.

    Scott N

    1. Its possible and I've wondered the same thing. I looked at the carvings for signs that the collars might be hoods turned in or out and I couldn't find any evidence. I thought that might explain the really uniform rounding on the front corner of the collars, but there should be other clues in the carvings and I haven't seen them yet. There is so much detail incised into some of the carvings that I really think if they were carving a hood that had been turned, it would look like a hood turned in or out. The collars are carved so flat, without any other lines or bulges to indicate that they are built up of two layers of a folded hood. That said there are a couple of "hooded" figures in the Saglek Bay collections, but they are much rougher carvings and I'm not sure if they represent humans or hoods at all. They look kind of like seals to me.

      Its tough to say, my mind is open on the turned hood idea, but I'd love to see at least one carving that really shows that in action, otherwise I'm going to go with a collar on this first attempt.


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