Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Marking Beothuk Reproductions

Pencil on bone
I'm back in the studio, working on Beothuk reproductions.  The photos in this blog post show a few bone gaming pieces and pendants roughed out and marked up for carving.  The gaming pieces are made from long bones and the pendants are cut out of caribou mandibles.  I've drawn designs on them in pencil based on actual artifacts and tomorrow I'll incise the designs so that when they are covered in red ochre the carved designs will stand out.  Most of the Beothuk designs seem to be abstract.  If they had meaning, they are forgotten.  I spend a lot of time counting lines and hatch marks to transfer the designs by hand from the artifacts to the reproductions.  The closest thing to a pattern that I've seen seems to be related to methods for filling up space on the object's surface rather than marking out something more abstract like measuring time or distance.

Adding a line midway between
two existing lines is an easy way
to evenly fill up a space.  Its
exactly the same idea as the
fractions within an inch on a ruler,
except each mark isn't exactly 1/8
or 1/16 of an inch wide - the
spacing changes depending on
how far apart you space the first
two marks.
The patterns on the objects seem to be easiest to reproduce by working from the edges inwards.  Most of the pieces have border lines incised around the edges of the piece.  Whether they are square gaming pieces or more triangular pendants, the first step is to define the outer limits of the pattern and then proceed to divide up the internal space.  The internal space is usually divided into halves and then more details are added symmetrically inside those internal divisions.  Its not always the case, but often when I count the lines covering a space they make sense if you approach the design with the goal of systematically and evenly filling up the internal space in mind.   The designs start by delineating the maximum boundaries and then subdivide the internal space again and again.  Is that a fractal?  Or maybe a reverse fractal? Kind of, I guess.   Its easier to understand what I mean if you look at the sketch on the left.  In the top row, I've drawn two lines to show the edges of the space that I want to infill with marks.  In the second row, I've added one more line half way between them which leaves three lines in total, evenly distributed in a row.  In the next line, I've added a mark in between each of the three lines to create five evenly spaced marks.  Using this method it is easy to fill up a space of any size with equally spaced lines.  In turn it leaves behind sets of the same number of marks over and over again.  I haven't done the math, but my impression is that sets of five, nine, and seventeen marks or lines show up on Beothuk carvings more often than other numbers.  More than random, at any rate.  As a variation on this, you can add two marks (instead of a single mark) between a pair at any stage, which leaves a different, but still repetitive, sequence of numbers.  When I copy a design onto a reproduction I think about how I'll copy and scale the design to fit the space and more often than not I can use a simple formula like this to get the same number of evenly spaced marks as I see on the original.  If it works on the reproduction, it makes me think that maybe similar methods were used to create the originals.

On these tiles, the patterns might look random or complex at first, but at least some of the designs seem to be based on sequences of numbers that are easy to explain if the carver set out to systematically fill the space quickly and evenly with marks or dashes.  For example - the tile with the "H" in the middle has a border on the right side with seventeen diagonal dashes in it.  Its very easy to place seventeen evenly spaced dashes into a given area simply by adding lines in the gaps between previous lines (see the drawing above.)  The gaming piece in the upper left corder with the grid on it is even easier.  It has two sets of nine lines running across it, which can be drawn by adding parallel lines between two lines three times in a row and then crossing it at 90 degrees with one set of five lines running lengthwise (which can be made by adding a line between two lines twice).  
There may be meaning behind these symbols and designs, but I really get the feeling when I make them that they are the result of creatively applying some very simple rules 1) define the edges of the design, 2) divide it down the middle 3) fill in each half symetrically with evenly spaced lines, dashes, and triangles.  No two pieces are ever the same, but they all seem to be made following the same design principles.  
Does any of this make sense?  I feel like I've taken a very simple idea and explained it in the most complicated way possible.

Photo Credits: Tim Rast

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