Friday, September 13, 2013

Starting a Beothuk Bow Reproduction

Is there a bow somewhere in one of
these sticks?
I've been working on a reproduction of a Beothuk bow for less than a week and my impressions of the bows are changing quickly.  I collected a big fir trunk a couple days ago quartered it down and started working two of the staves.  I know that I want the bow to be 5-6 feet long, based on the historical observations and the notion that Beothuk bows were the "height of a man".  I wasn't sure about the width of the bow, so I tried to figure that out from the one photograph that depicts bow fragments. I've cut and pasted the bow fragments from that photo into the image below, but you can see the source photo, including the arrow shafts, in this blog post.

Beothuk Bow fragments from Howley 1914.   A, B, C) Adult sized pieces. D) Part of a child's bow.  E) The same bow as D photo reconstructed with the assumption that the slight narrowing under the [6] label is the grip. F) Another child's bow.  

In the middle of the photo is a
reproduction Beothuk Arrow.
Immediately below it, you can
see a 2.1 cm wide kraft paper
bow pattern pinned to the fir
 bow stave.
There is no scale in the photo, but when Janet Chute examined the Beothuk bow and arrow pieces in the Newfoundland Museum and Canadian Museum of Man in the 1970s, she mentioned that the arrows averaged 1.2 cm in width.  I haven't had any luck tracking down these artifacts to view them myself.  They seem to have been misplaced sometime over the past 40 years, but working from Chute's measurement and the photo of bow and arrow fragments in Howley, I tried to work out the width of the bows.  Assuming the arrows are approximately 1.2 cm wide, then the bow fragments in the photo must be about 2.1 cm wide, or 13/16ths of a inch.  The child sized bows and arrows obey the same ratio.  If the kids arrows were scaled up to 1.2 cm in diameter, then the kids' bows would also be 2.1 cm wide.  This is very narrow.  Even if my calculations are out by 20%, they are still less than an inch wide.  Imagine a five or six foot long bow the width of your thumb - its skinnier than a broom handle.  From the photos and written descriptions,  I think the bows are flat on the inside or belly, but rounded on the outside or back.  If you look at the photos of the bow parts, I think you can see a D-Shaped cross section to most of them.  The fragments that appear flat (A and D above) are probably photographed belly side up, but the fragments that appear rounded (B and F) are probably photographed with the back side up.

Mountain Ash are easy to spot this time of year, thanks to their bright red bunches of berries.

Fir staves on the left, Mountain Ash
saplings on the right
The bows look to be fairly straight limbed, with little to no fading in the width towards the nocks.  I think most of the thinning must have been done in the thickness of the limbs, rather than the width.  There's also the matter of the grooves running down the middle of some of the fragments (A and D above).  I'm still not 100% certain what those are and I had originally thought they were on the back of the bow, but after talking to a bowyer in the spring, I think they are probably on the belly.  I'm thinking that the Beothuk may have been making stick bows from branches or saplings and that the groove in the limbs is actually the pith channel from the middle of the growth rings of the wood.  I think that the Beothuk would have selected long, straight saplings that were not much bigger than the finished bow and thinned the end of each limb flat, down to the middle of the wood, stopping more or less at the pith in the middle of the branch or trunk.  The edges and back of the bow would not have much more shaping done to them than removing the bark.  The grip in the middle of the bow would be left thicker, which explains why the central groove appears to disappear in the middle of the bow (D above) and is only visible on the limbs. (Ok, I know the piece of paper is obscuring that part of the bow, but it does look like the groove is tapering out towards it, doesn't it?)

The pith in the centre of the wood
wants to pop out.  
That's my theory for the day, at any rate.  I don't know if it makes sense in bow-making terms, but I picked up some nice straight Mountain Ash saplings and small trunks today and I intend to work them as I've described above.  I think this is closer to actual Beothuk bow making strategy than working the large quarter staves of fir as I'd started earlier.  Working from a sapling should create all the features of the Beothuk bow with relatively little wood removal, whereas trying to get to the same shape from a split fir log requires a lot more work, produces a lot more waster, and the whole project feels a little more forced. Given the tools available to the Beothuk and after studying the available records, I think that bows made on saplings or branches make the most sense.


Chute, Janet Elizabeth
1976 A Comparative Study of The Bark, Bone, Wood, and Hide Items Made By The Historic Micmac, Montagnais/Nascapi and Beothuk Indians. MA Thesis, Anthropology, Memorial University of Newfoundland. St. John's.

Howley, James P. 1914 The Beothuck or Red Indians: The Aboriginal Inhabitants of Newfoundland. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge

Photo Credits: Tim Rast

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