Friday, February 21, 2014

Dorset Drums: A 1500 year old song?

Late Dorset drum reproductions from
the Canadian Arctic
I think that the Dorset Palaeoeskimo drum frames from Button Point may have the oldest pieces of written music in Canada etched into their frames.  I don't think there are any radiocarbon dates from Button Point, but stylistically the artifacts are Late Dorset, which began about 1500 years ago and lasted until the Dorset disappeared sometime between a thousand and five hundred years ago.  The Late Dorset time period is marked by a fluorescence of artwork, primarily carvings, that may have magical and religious significance.  Dorset art is often associated with shamanism, and the drums from Button Point are also believed to have been part of a shaman's tool kit.

In this video clip, I introduce the drums within the context of Dorset shamanism and demonstrate the sounds that the drums make when played:

The skeletal motif on an ivory bear
One of the most common design elements that appears in Dorset art is the incised representation of a skeleton, which archaeologists call the X-ray skeletal motif.  These skeletal motifs, sometimes reduced to an abstract representation of the spinal column, are found on naturalistic animal carvings, but also on abstract carvings and other objects.  One theory is that these carvings were religious or shamanistic in nature and some of the figures suggest that humans, most likely shamans, could even transform themselves into animals.  There are figures in Dorset art that seem to depict people transforming into animals and as a student the way the skeletal motif and this transformation was explained to me was that a shaman could enter a trance-like state, strip off their own skin down to their skeleton and then redress themselves in the skin of the animal that they want to change into.  We know by analogy with later Inuit groups and other shamanic cultures that rhythmic drumming and chanting can be used to induce a trance-like state.   Dorset drums could have filled a similar role.

The drums, a photo of the original artifact and a drawing of
the tick marks located around the edge of the frame.
On the back of the Button Point drums there are incised lines ornamenting the frame.  Some of these lines seem to represent the spinal columns seen in the x-ray skeletal motif.  The patterns of marks on each drum are different, and I don't know a lot about the design on the incomplete drum, but the more complete drum frame has a pattern of marks incised on it that I think could be interpreted musically.  There are 13 sets of tick marks incised into the drum frame.  They are spaced evenly around the circle like the numbers on a clock.  The pattern does not appear to be random, instead it appears to count up and down from the handle towards the top of the drum, where two sets of eight tick marks are carved with a central line running through them that suggests that they are also meant to represent spinal columns.

I used rabbit fur on the
willow drum stick to muffle
the clack of wood striking
The pattern appears to be a mirror image on the left side and right side of the drum.  You can see the pattern of tick marks in the diagram below, but I'll walk you through it, starting at the handle which is marked with three tick marks.  If you go clockwise or counterclockwise, the next mark is a single tick mark, then a gap and two tick marks, a gap and three tick marks, a gap and four tick marks (probably), a gap and six tick marks, a gap and eight tick marks (with a spinal column) and then the pattern counts down again, eight ticks with a spinal column, six ticks, four ticks (probably), three ticks, two ticks, one tick, and then you are back at the handle.  I say "probably" on each of the sets of four tick marks because there is damage on each side of the drum in that same spot, so I'm speculating a bit about what might have originally appeared there.  On one side you can see at least three tick marks just beside the damaged area and I think the best fit with the rest of the sequence would be four tick marks, because it continues the sequence of one, two, three, four if you count up from the handle by ones, as well as the sequence of eight, six, four if you count down from the spinal columns by twos.

The sequence of incised marks on one of the Button Point Dorset drums.  The shaded areas on either side are damaged areas of the artifact, so the presence and number of ticks in each of those positions is speculative.  Although on the left hand side, you can see that at least three tick marks were carved into the frame.

I really like the look of the drum with
the transparent skin, but it requires
more preparation to get a good
sound out of it because the skin
dries and stretches unevenly.
In the context of a drum, I'm very tempted to interpret that sequence of ascending and descending numbers musically and from the point of view of a Dorset shaman's drum, I'm very tempted to interpret the count as leading from a normal state of being to a trance-like state or transformation, as indicated by the spinal columns carved at the height of the sequence.  I've tried to illustrate the sorts of things that I'm thinking in the video clip below.  I'm not sure how you could begin to read a 1500 year old piece of music, but perhaps the tick marks represent a cycle of singing or chanting that should take place over a period of time, like the cycle of prayers indicated by the beads on a rosary.  Maybe the marks are literally marking out drum beats to play a specific song.  Perhaps the ticks are marking positions on the drum that should be played in a particular sequence.

In this clip I talk about the incised marks on the drum frame and try a couple different rhythms that I think the ticks could be illustrating:

I do think the marks are a piece of written music, but I don't know if we'll ever be able to say with certainty what it is saying.  Maybe you have an idea?  Does this sequence of numbers make sense to you musically, or do you think it is marking out something completely different?  Random is not an option.  Someone placed them there intentionally and put at least some thought into their meaning.

Photo Credits:
1, 3-6: Tim Rast


  1. The locations of the damaged area on the frame of the drum, at the [possible] '4 tick marks', was the area of the drum I most commonly hit with the stick when I just picked it up to play.

    1. I think you are right. They do seem like the most likely areas to receive the most pounding over the lifetime of the drum, so damage in that area makes sense.

  2. Very interesting ...I can see your passion for this Im hoping before you shared this sacred information you were given permission from the First peoples...It always great practice and shows them respect ...some First peoples groups are very cautious about sharing sacred songs, items etc with anyone..especially when it involves shaman or medicine women or men ..ty

    1. That's a good point. I should have provided a bit more context. The people who made these drums belonged to a distinct cultural group who lived in the Arctic prior to the arrival of the Inuit. Archaeologists call them Dorset and the Inuit called them Tunit. Unfortunately, the Tunit have disappeared and have no descendants to tell their stories. The ideas that I mentioned in this blog post and the videos about Dorset shamanism aren't direct accounts of their religion from Dorset sources, but projections and interpretations made by archaeologists and art historians as a way to understand the material culture that the Dorset/Tunit left behind.

      In the specific case of Button Point, the nearest living community is Pond Inlet. Inuit living in Pond Inlet saw sites eroding in their area, including Button Point, and brought artifacts to the local priest, Fr. Guy Mary-Rousselière, who acted to salvage the sites in the Pond Inlet area as best that he could. Many of the artifacts collected by Mary-Rousseliere are now cared for in the Canadian Museum of History. Unfortunately, Father Guy and many of his notes from his years of excavation were lost in a fire in 1994.

      I don't have any specific knowledge that would have belonged to Dorset/Tunit shamans, only a general understanding of the sort of role and expectations of a shaman within any shamanistic culture. Archaeologists have been puzzling over the meaning of Dorset art for decades, but unfortunately there are not any Dorset shaman around to ask for guidance. I wish I could ask a Dorset shaman what those tick marks on the drum mean. Maybe they would tell me or maybe they wouldn't. Maybe they'd tell me a story that they'd think I'd like to hear, that might be the truth or might not be. Still, it is one of the frustrating things about trying to understand the Dorset culture that there are no people to ask why they lived the way they did and why they made the peculiar things that Inuit and archaeologists find on the land today.

  3. Incredibly interesting. It's a sensitive topic but worth pursuing because there's something admirable and powerful about resurrecting a sound that's been silent for over a thousand years.

    1. It is interesting, isn't it? I agree, the Dorset deserve to have their story remembered and told, even though they aren't around to do so with their own stories, songs, and voices. If this is a piece of written music, whether its secular or religious in nature, I think the Dorset deserve recognition for that.


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