Monday, November 23, 2009

How does a Barbed Harpoon Work?

The oldest style of harpoon in the world is the barbed harpoon. A harpoon is a spear-like device with a detachable head tied to a line. When the barbed harpoon head is embedded in the flesh of the prey animal, the barbs grip the tissue and the hunter has a secure line attached to it. Its similar to how a fish hook catches a fish, but its used on larger fish and sea mammals. Sometimes the hunter holds the other end of the line and sometimes the line is attached to a float that drags behind the prey, identifying its location, preventing it from escaping and exhausting it.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, the Maritime Archaic Indians used barbed harpoons similar to the one labelled above. They most likely used it for seal hunting. This is my best guess for how the harpoon might have looked. If you visit the Maritime Archaic exhibit at The Rooms, you'll see this label next to the Maritime Archaic Indian foreshafts like the one in this reproduction: "Whalebone foreshafts were used for sea mammal hunting. Exactly how they functioned has puzzled archaeologists for decades." That's still totally true - take all the reproductions that you see on these pages with a grain of salt. I wasn't there.

However, in my kitchen, I did finally get all of the components of the ballistic gel seal working the way they should; skin, fat, and meat. For the meat layer, I tried denser ballistics gel alone, but it wouldn't hold the harpoon head securely enough when I tried to pull it out. Next I tried lacing the dense gel with sinew threads, but the barbs just grabbed them and pulled them out like spaghetti on a fork. Finally, Lori gave me some cheese cloth, which I cut into circles and suspended at various depths in the gelatin. The loose weave was punctured by the antler harpoon head, but there was enough form to the cloth that it held together and gripped the harpoon head when I tried to pull it out. I don't think I quite have a realistic muscle consistency, but by increasing the density of the gel and adding more and more cheesecloth layers I know I'll be able to have a lot of control over the accuracy of the model.

In the tests with the barbed harpoon, we got lucky with two different views of the barbs in action. On the first attempt, my bad aim and a wobbly gelatin tower caused the harpoon to go astray and not penetrate the "meat" layer. However, the barbs snagged securely on the rawhide skin layer. In the second photo below you can even see the path the harpoon head took through the gel before being pulled back up to snag on the skin.

On the next test, the harpoon penetrated deep into the "meat" layer and through 3 of the 4 layers of cheesecloth. The "meat" had enough substance to grip the barbs of the harpoon on the way out. It held firmly enough to prove the concept and get these photos, but in actual experiments I think I'll use a denser gelatin (in this version I used 1 packet of knox gelatin for every 100ml of water) and more layers of cheesecloth.

Its interesting to note that when the harpoon head grabbed on the skin layer it used the barb closest to the line hole and when it grabbed in the "meat" it used the barb closest to the tip. There is a lot of variability in Maritime Archaic harpoon heads of this style, with anywhere from 1 to 4 barbs along one edge or both edges. That would be another interesting thing to examine in these experiments - the differences in the number and arrangement of barbs on a barbed point.

I'm loving this project - if testing the ballistics gel is this much fun, I can't wait to start actually testing the harpoons!

Photo Captions:
First & Second: Tim Rast
Third - Eighth: Lori White

Photo Captions:
First: Labelled Maritime Archaic Barbed Harpoon
Second: Label next to Maritime Archaic foreshafts at The Rooms
Third: Ballistics Gel Seal test using barbed harpoon
Fourth: Barbed harpoon head grabbing the skin layer
Fifth: You can see the trackway of the harpoon preserved in the gel!
Sixth: The barbs grabbed the cheesecloth in the meat layer!
Seventh: Its the distal barb that is doing all the work.
Eighth: You can really see the cheesecloth gripping from this angle.


  1. There was a seal in Norton's Cove this morning...

  2. Hey Tim,

    Still really enjoying the experiments. Can't wait to see the next step!

  3. I'm away to Alberta for a few days, so it looks like the seals and jello in this province will be safe. Although I think a drive to Saskatchewan is in the plans for this trip - maybe I'll be able to pick up some Genuine Saskatchewan Sealskin Bindings to have on hand for the next round of tests. Safety First!

  4. I'm working on a modren day inuit harpoon. which i will use on animals as soon as it's done. The harpoon head come's off from the tension between the animal and the float. thus causing the head to turn on an angle inside the animal's muscle tissue and meat. Jomie Iqaluit nunavut

  5. That's really cool, Jomie. I'd love to hear more about your harpoon making and hunting. Most of the modern harpoons that I've seen have come from Labrador or Igloolik - do people in Iqaluit have their own style of harpoon? Will yours be for small seals or larger animals?

  6. Is that Ramah chert in the background of your blog? I found some of that once at a site on Baffin Island. Patrick

  7. Yes, the background image is Ramah Chert - good eye! That's interesting about finding it on Baffin Island. I hear lots about its movement south, but I'm less familiar with its spread farther north. Makes sense that it would show up on Baffin though. Thanks for sharing.

  8. We found the occasional piece of Ramah Chert in Dorset sites in outer Frobisher Bay. It is VERY distinctive - that surgary texture. And I also found a piece in a VERY late Dorset house. I've often wondered if the Dorset maintained contacts down labrador way to the bitter end. But I'm an Alaskan Archaeologist these days - so I have not pursued these thoughts. Dan Odess did write up what we found if you are interested. It was his Phd. Patrick


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