Monday, January 11, 2010

How does a Thule Harpoon Work?

Before Christmas, I promised that I'd describe how a Thule harpoon works. I wanted to take a few new photos of the harpoons to illustrate the different components, but we've had such mild weather that the backyard was full of green grass. This weekend, we finally got snow, so here's a few appropriately wintry shots.

Materials: From tip to base, the materials used in the harpoon are nephrite (endblade), walrus ivory (harpoon head, finger rest, and butt), whale bone (foreshaft, socket, tension piece and tension peg), spruce (main shaft), seal skin (harpoon line, lashing line), baleen (finger rest lashing), and sinew (lashings on harpoon line).

Finger Rest: A Thule hunter would probably be wearing mitts when they threw a harpoon like this, so having a finger rest at the balance point of the harpoon keeps your icy mitt from sliding along the shaft when you go to throw. In the photo on the left, the finger rest is the little sharks fin that my fingers are resting against. The finger rests were secured both by being fit into a rectangular slot in the mainshaft and tied down to the shaft. I like to use baleen lashings to secure the finger rests. The baleen are those two black bands underneath the tension piece.

Tension Piece and Tension Peg: The harpoon head is firmly held onto the foreshaft by having the first 3 feet or so of the line attached to the mainshaft. A bone or ivory tension piece was attached to the line. The tension piece has one or more holes in it that fit over a peg placed midway down the mainshaft. When the line gets wet, it will stretch, so having two holes in the tension piece gives you different settings for the tension in your line depending on the season and weather conditions. With the tension piece in place, the harpoon head can not be removed, so how does it detach when you strike your prey?

The answer is in the design of the foreshaft - its a breakaway design that is built to roll out from its socket, when the weight of the thrown harpoon hits the target. When the foreshaft bends at the socket, it creates enough slack in the line that the harpoon head can detach and toggle in the animal. At the same time the tension piece falls off the peg and the harpoon line detaches itself from the mainshaft.

Socketed Foreshaft: The foreshaft fits into a socket on the end of the mainshaft. The socket and foreshaft were usually made from ivory or whalebone. I've used whalebone in this reproduction. Ivory sockets are pretty cool, because the base of the tusk was used and the pulp cavity of the tooth forms a natural hollow that fits over the end of the wood mainshaft. If you find the right size and shape of tusk to start with, then most of the work is done for you. If you are really lucky, the rest of the tusk can be worked into a foreshaft and harpoon head. One tusk will give you all of the ivory that you need for one harpoon.

Unlike the fixed foreshafts used by the earlier Palaeoeskimo groups, the Thule developed the socketed foreshaft so that its rigid when thrown, but bends when it impacts the prey. Kind of like the crumple zone on a car. The shape of the socket and the foreshaft prevents it from rocking forward or back, so the only way it can bend is right or left. The hunter could even determine whether the foreshaft would roll out to the right or left, by varying the placement of the lashing holes in the foreshaft and mainshaft and by adjusting the tension in the leather lashing. You can preset the foreshaft to bend whichever way you want, to take full advantage of the barbs and the toggling action of your harpoon head.

Thule vs. Palaeoeskimo Harpoons: The photo below shows the difference in size between the larger Thule harpoon reproduction and the smaller Palaeoeskimo harpoon. Both are toggling harpoons that would have been used for seal hunting, although the Thule harpoon may have also been used for larger seals and sea mammals like walrus.

Photo Credits: Tim Rast

Photo Captions:
First, A complete Thule Inuit Harpoon Reproduction
Second, The finger rest is there to keep your mitt from sliding when you go to throw the harpoon
Third, Note the tension in the line between the tension piece and the harpoon head in the distance
Fourth, The harpoon head in place on the foreshaft
Fifth, A side view of the foreshaft in the socket, without the harpoon head and line in place
Sixth, The foreshaft rolls out of the socket on impact, creating slack in the line
Seventh, With slack in the line, the harpoon head can detach and toggle
Eighth, Side by side comparison of a Dorset Palaeoeskimo and Thule Harpoon reproduction


  1. Thanks for the technical details! I always did kind of wonder what the foreshaft was for...

  2. great blog I was passed this site by a common friend of ours. Im a greenland kayaking obsessed guy and found this post very interesting. wonderful work.

  3. I don't do nearly enough kayaking, and I really can't think of a good reason why. I've been thinking a lot about it lately and I'm anxious to get back into it.

    Thanks for checking out the site, I hope you keep reading along.

  4. Thanks for the explanation on the finger rest. I've only ever read that these pieces were to prop up the harpoon shaft while waiting at a breathing hole so the piece wouldn't freeze to the ground. This is a much better explanation as to its function and this explains why it has the word "finger" in the name.

  5. Boas has a good explanation and drawings of this style of harpoon in "The Central Eskimo". I use that book as a reference as well as matching harpoons from Labrador when making these. He says "At its center of gravity a small piece of ivory (tikagung) is attached, which serves to support the hand in throwing the weapon". When you hold it, everything makes perfect sense. They are really impressive machines.

  6. fantastic long is the fore shaft and main shaft thanks..

  7. The foreshaft on the Thule harpoon in the photos is about 13", which seems about average. They can be a couple inches shorter or a couple inches longer. The main shaft is about 5 feet.

  8. needing ivory tipped implements for Kayak, Umiak an Baidarka. 25" to 35" are the sealskin boats. thanks. email;

  9. could also use a figure that would be compatible with a 35" Baidarka. jointed and dressed. thank you. email.;
    I REALLY ENJOY this site!!!!!

  10. oh oh here I am again. I have some ochres that i have ground from the creekbeds if anyone may be interested. also ancient walrus jaw, some mammoth, seal skulll..... my garden is a little bit different then others... also some almost fossilized bison bones I got in the Illinois river along with a very very old bison skull. Very heavy and almost opalized. thanks, susie email;

  11. Are you looking to sell or trade some of the ochres, and if so, let me know!The walrus jaw sounds really cool, what a find.

  12. Hi - I'm away in the field until the beginning of September, but I might be able to help you out with some reproductions and raw materials over the fall/winter.


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