Friday, April 30, 2010

L'Anse aux Meadows Harpoon - First Impressions

It was like Christmas morning in the vault!
I've been making Palaeoeskimo reproductions for 15 years and harpoons for at least a decade, but yesterday was the first time that I ever held a complete wood mainshaft from a Palaeoeskimo harpoon.  Its not that I haven't been trying to do a good job - its just that they are so rare.  This one is a Groswater Palaeoeskimo harpoon and although it was excavated in the 1970s, I'm not sure if anyone really remembered that it existed or appreciated what it was before Jenneth Curtis pulled it out of Parks Canada storage in Dartmouth this winter.  Its an amazing and unique artifact.  The tamarack shaft was found in a bog at L'Anse aux Meadows with other wood working fragments and was radiocarbon dated to 2970+/-110BP.

The Groswater Harpoon shaft
It's 121 cm long, nearly perfectly straight, and 23-24mm square along its entire length.  It is extremely well preserved with tool marks and construction details frozen in the wood like they were put there yesterday.  There were details on it that I couldn't have guessed at, like a recessed area that was likely designed to help secure the harpoon line to the main shaft and a tapered "scarf" joint at the butt end that I think indicates an ice pick was hafted to the end.  It was also gratifying that some aspects of the construction that I'd only guessed at before were preserved there in full colour - like the combination scarfed and gouged foreshaft socket.  In the photo on the left you can see those three features.  The scarfed and gouged foreshaft socket is in the foreground, the recessed section is along the shaft opposite the pencil and the taper at the far end is the long scarfed surface that may have been secured to an ice pick.  The mock-up below shows the shaft from the side and a sketch of how I think all the missing pieces would fit together.

This artifact is going to change how I make Groswater Palaeoeskimo harpoons

Can you see the 2900 year old cut marks?
The best part is that I get to bring this artifact to life over the next few weeks by building a reproduction that will go on display in the expanded Parks Canada Interpretation Centre at L'Anse aux Meadows.  The focal point for L'Anse aux Meadows is the 1000 year old Norse settlement that was discovered 50 years ago this year by researchers following maps and sagas to Vinland.  However, there were other people living there before and after the Vikings came and the story of the Aboriginal inhabitants of the area will be expanded in the new exhibits.  The reproductions that I'm working on span the Palaeoeskimo time period, including both the Groswater and Dorset Palaeoeskimo.

Scarfed and gouged socket (look how straight it is!)
The set includes 4 pieces - a knife, a scraper, an adze, and the harpoon - and the goal will be to reconstruct them as they would have appeared when new. The completed pieces will be similar to the Wapusk artifact reproductions. In fact, in a cool coincidence, the 2900 year old harpoon is exactly the same age as the Seahorse Gully artifacts from Manitoba that I based the Wapusk harpoon on. Even though these two sites are separated by about 2000 km, the similarities are remarkable. They could have fit together like two pieces of the same puzzle.  The scarfed and gouged socket that I used on the Wapusk harpoon (inset with black background on the right) is exactly the style of socket preserved on the L'Anse aux Meadows Groswater harpoon.

Photo Credits: Tim Rast


  1. What a beautiful piece! It's a very sleek and well made-looking specimen - which is not surprising considering everything else the groswater made. The tapering of the proximal end for the addition of an ice pick is wonderful!

    I would expect that similar designs were used by the Dorset. We'll have to discuss what sort of trade-in value my Dorset harpoon shaft would have with Elfshot, that is, if I was to consider trading up to the 2010 model :)

  2. Wow, just absolutely wow. And to think, it was sitting in Halifax for nearly 40 years. What else is over there? Someone really needs to take an inventory of what they have from LAM. Incredible.
    I am very impressed that your design details match what the Groswater actually used - not at all surprised but very impressed.
    I've always been amazed with the incredible attention to detail the Palaeoeskimo folks put into their tools, the Groswater Shallow Bay stuff in particular. This only enhances my impression of their workmanship.

  3. John, I think something like that would be a lot of fun. I usually make a harpoon once and it goes out the door and I never see it again. In reality they would have been under constant repair and replacement of parts. I think it would be a lot of fun to take a harpoon like yours and update it based on the new information. We've got all that new sealskin for lashings and lines as well.

  4. Now that I reread parts of Birgitta Wallace's "Westward Viking" I see even there she lists "twenty-two pieces of worked wood and a harpoon shank of wood.." under the Groswater section. But I never would have imagined just how complete the harpoon shaft would be. We're getting copies of some early Parks reports to get more details. All very exciting!!

  5. Thanks for writing that Lori. Birgitta has indeed published this piece, and she even showed a picture at the CAA in St. John's. And while very knowledgeable on the subject, she is not an expert on palaeoeskimo cultures She's always presented L'Anse aux Meadows as a series of occupations, of which the Norse were the most fleeting. You can assure Steve that all of the pieces from the Groswater level of the bog have been well catalogued and are carefully conserved in the Parks Canada lab in Halifax. The new L'Anse aux Meadows exhibit should be a great improvement with the inclusion of the native part of the story.

  6. Rob, thanks so much for the background information, we're going to keep tracking down copies of Birgitta's reports. I'm not sure why this piece hasn't got the attention it deserved - I promise not to forget about this time around! I guess its been overshadowed by the sex appeal of the Norse story itself, but seeing this artifact on its own yesterday I felt like I was holding one of those ice patch artifacts. I really appreciate the opportunity to work with this piece and I think you are right that the new exhibit will help keep this part of the story in people's consciousness. I hope the reproduction will help people recognize what a cool object the actual artifact is.

  7. You have one of the top ten jobs in the world.


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