Monday, March 31, 2014

Ā-ā-duth, or Spear for Killing Seals

Beothuk Harpoon
The twelve foot long Beothuk harpoon reproduction is complete now.  The reproduction is based on Beothuk harpoon heads in museum collections, historic descriptions, and a drawing by Shawnadithit illustrating a complete "Ā-ā-duth, or Spear for Killing Seals."  The toggling harpoon head is certainly more reminiscent of Dorset Palaeoeskimo harpoon heads than Inuit designs, but beyond that similarity, this harpoon is completely unlike anything known from any other culture in Newfoundland and Labrador.  It lacks a foreshaft, is at least twice as long as Inuit sealing harpoons, and based on the Groswater harpoon shaft from L'Anse aux Meadows, it is three times the length of Palaeoeskimo harpoons.

Harpooning a compost bin in the back yard.  The caribou skin line runs the length of the harpoon, hooks into a notch cut in the end of the shaft and doubles back to where I'm holding the loop of the line with my left hand.  You can see the details in the drawing by Shawnadithit below.

In Shawnadithit's drawing she gives the Beothuk name for the harpoon (A-a-duth) and illustrates how the line was attached.  The type of wood isn't identified in the sources, but I used pine, primarily for its ease of working and light weight.  I made the shaft a little more than an inch square, based partly on the shape and diameter of the L'Anse aux Meadows harpoon and Cormack's mention that Beothuk harpoons were "slighter" than Inuit designs.  Besides, it's unwieldy enough at 12 feet long, without having a lot of added girth and weight to it.

Harpooning a backyard snowbank from two stories up.

The mainshaft tapers
into a foot long wedge
shape, which serves to
mount the harpoon head
and also creates a scarf
join to connect the two
sections together.
At twelve feet long, this is definitely an outdoor harpoon.  However, the plan is to us it in interpretive programming at the Mary March Provincial Museum in Grand Falls-Windsor.  For ease of transport and use, I made the main shaft in two 6 1/2 foot lengths.  The tail section of the harpoon is actually a complete, half sized harpoon that could be used to illustrate how the tool was used.  Apparently Beothuk harpoons did not have a separate foreshaft, so the long tapered end of the wood shaft in this reproduction can double as a scarf joint that fits into a rawhide socket permanently attached to the second 6 1/2 foot long section.  Basically, I made a complete 6 1/2 foot long harpoon for interpretive purposes that fits into an optional extension that will create a full 12 foot long Beothuk harpoon for a wall display or outdoor use.

In order to make the harpoon easier to transport, store, and use, I made it in two parts.  This rawhide lashing connect them together.  Here I've wrapped the end of back half of the harpoon in a plastic bag and wrapped rawhide tightly around the joint.  The rawhide and hide glue join glues itself to the wood of the front half of the harpoon and the plastic bag prevented this from happening on the back half.  When the rawhide dried, it created a hard socket permanently attached to the front half of the harpoon.

In the lower right corner, you can see the rawhide lashing that joins the two halves of the harpoon together to create the full 12 foot long harpoon shown in the photos here.  The entire harpoon is stained with red ochre.

The Beothuk bow reproduction is the
 height of a man and the arrow is
three feet long, but they are dwarfed
by the harpoon.  If you enlarge the
photo, you can see the "V" shaped
notch in the end of the harpoon to
fit the line into.
Given the length of the harpoon, I think its safe to surmise that it was used as a thrusting tool, rather than a thrown projectile.  James Howley suggested that it was unlikely that the Beothuk hunted seals from their canoes, because he felt the canoes were relatively frail, especially when compared to Inuit kayaks.  However, we know that the Beothuk hunted caribou from their canoes in open water, so I'm not so certain that we should rule out the possibility.  When you look at other cultures that used very long harpoon shafts, they are often used from boats in open water.  The length seems excessive for breathing hole sealing, so perhaps they were used along the ice edge in leads, or even from the shore, in the right setting.  I think it would be ironic if the Beothuk hunted land animals in the water and marine mammals from the land.

You can see previous posts documenting the construction of this harpoon here:

I will miss having this around the house, but it needs room to roam.  It wouldn't be fair to keep it cooped up in someplace with 8 foot ceilings.

Photo Credits: Lori White and Tim Rast


  1. "thrusting tool, rather than a thrown projectile" I'm not sure if we can ever be sure with these things. there are swords in Scotland that "modern man" can not realistically handle as a weapon (for fencing) yet no doubt the were not just for ornamental purposes. It would be interesting to see if no one can be found who still knows how to use one of these harpoons.

    1. Interesting suggestion and analogy. The historic descriptions of the Beothuk harpoon suggest that the line was held taught by hand, rather than tied in place, which means the line and harpoon head would fly loose if it was thrown, rather than thrust. Still, I think that may be conjecture on the part of the people describing the technology as none of the authors claim to have seen one in use. By analogy with other arctic harpoons - thrown or launched harpoons often have barbed, rather than toggling points and frequently have floats or drags attached to the lines. There are exceptions to those rules, but taken together as a package, I think the argument can be made that these tools seem designed for gripping and stabbing, rather than launching and throwing.

      We aren't going to find any Beothuk people who remember how to use it, but we might find other cultures around the world who use long harpoons. I haven't undertaken a comprehensive study of the subject, and I haven't found anyone yet who hunts seals with such long harpoons, but tuna fishing harpoons can be ten feet long and are used to hunt fish from boats floating above the fish. I don't know if the Beothuk harpoons would have been used from boats, but after spending a few minutes playing with this reproduction, my opinion is that it is most comfortable to use vertically, rather than horizontally. I think it would be handy in situations where you can place yourself 12 feet above a seal rather than 12 feet to its left or right.

      But I wasn't there. Anything is possible and I've been wrong about Beothuk harpoons more than once in the past.

  2. It would work well from the shore outcrops in southern labrador, where the seals pass right next to the rocks; rather than using a net as the Europeans seemed to prefer.

    1. I agree. That's the sort of situation that they seem best suited for.

  3. Interesting! Actually it could be one of several types of harpoons used by the Beothuk. The modern Yupiks of Nelson Island still use at least 3 variations of harpoons and used a least six separate types in the historic period. the European whaling harpoon was often 10 nor more feet in length and was thrown. The Northern Greenland (Smith Sound) folks used a long harpoon thrown with an atlatl from a qayaq. The atlatl was hooked on perpendicular pegs 2/3rd's the way from the tip. It was a heavy looking shaft. (oops perhaps it was in use on the Canadian side of Smith Sound). The tip of the harpoon leaves me curious. It looks to be copper but the shape does not seem right. We usually round the widest part of the insert and keep the corners dull to avoid having it cut its way out of the seal or walrus after it toggles. when i made my 1st harpoon, it was gently pointed out that I had sharpened the insert too much. I was confused until some one showed me what could happened. Drawings and even actual artifacts do not always demonstrate the finer points that make a hunting implement successful. It is important to see these implements in use to understand the finer points.

    1. Anything is possible, but given the little bit that we know about the Beothuk from the historic record and through archaeological research, I think it's unlikely that they had a suite of harpoons in their arsenal. There's no indication that they were whale hunters and their reliance on seals, especially once Europeans started arriving on Newfoundland's shores was quite limited. The few harpoon heads that we know seem consistent with the sealing harpoon head drawn on the A-a-duth by Shawnadithit. In other words there is very little evidence for harpoons or harpooning in general and the few specific references that we have all seem to point to the same device used for hunting seals.

      The endblade is iron and is based on Beothuk artifacts. Originally, they were most likely cut from the pans of iron leghold traps. You can see the reference harpoon head artifact in several of the links at the bottom of the blog post. The iron blade is unusually wide and as you observed, sharpened the full length of the blade. The sort of sharpening pattern that you mention is also used by the Inuit in the Canadian Arctic, but does not seem to have been employed by the Beothuk, perhaps because of the very broad style of endblade they seem to have preferred.

      The complete picture of the Beothuk harpoon is quite perplexing. Aspects of it seem very well developed, while others make the technology seem quite young or unfamiliar to the Beothuk. The design of the harpoon head looks to be borrowed from the Dorset Palaeoeskimo, who were extinct for a thousand years before contact, while other elements that appear in all the neighbouring harpoon technologies (like foreshafts) are absent. The whole thing is constructed from terrestrial resources, using antler and deerskin rather than marine mammal parts, as is often seen in other cultures on the island. The subsistence and settlement pattern of the group, in general, does not appear to rely heavily on seals, but at the same time they made the largest sealing harpoons of anyone who ever lived here. Its full of contradictions and paradoxes, which I think makes it fascinating.


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