Monday, May 31, 2010

Beothuk Harpoon Head Photos

Beothuk Harpoon head and arrowheads, The Rooms
I'm still away on the trip to the west coast.  If everything went according to plan, then the Craft Council AGM wrapped up yesterday and I'm collecting stone and wood on the drive home today and tomorrow.  I'm tempted to stop in at the Mary March Museum in Grand Falls-Windsor, as well.  They have an excellent display of Beothuk artifacts and there are a couple of things about the spears and harpoon heads that I'm curious about.

Shawnadithit's drawing of hunting weapons
I mentioned this idea before in the comments of an earlier post, but I think that the Beothuk may have used their long deer spears as the mainshaft and foreshaft for their sealing harpoons.  Shawnadithit drew pictures of the the deer spear and sealing harpoon side-by-side, and doesn't give any indication that they may have occasionally been the same instrument, but the existing Beothuk harpoon heads look as though they were designed to fit onto extremely flat and wide foreshafts.  Which is odd, because Shawnadithit doesn't draw a foreshaft at all on her harpoon.  I've posted the photos that I have on hand of the Beothuk harpoon head in the Mary March Museum and the one on display at the Rooms in St. John's (the one at the top of the post).  I wasn't really thinking about the sockets when I took these photos, so I don't have any that show quite how wide and flat these sockets are, but I think they give you the general idea.  I have an especially hard time imagining a wood shaft that would fit into these harpoon heads.  In order to fit inside, it would have to taper down to a spatula end about the thickness of a credit card.

Beothuk Harpoon head in the Mary March Museum - also has a extremely thin, flat socket at the base
The harpoon head could fit onto the end of one of the larger iron spearheads
What is that binding material - why is it black?
In looking at these photos, I'm also curious about the binding material on the harpoon head with the iron endblade intact.  The binding is identified as sinew, but sinew isn't black.  Either the discolouration came from the treatment of the iron endblade, or it may be black pitch that was used as a glue.  There are so few examples of hafted Beothuk tools (in fact, this may be the only one) that it would be very interesting to examine the binding in a little more detail.

Photo Credits:
1,3-5: Tim Rast
2: Drawing by Shawnadithit from Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage website

Friday, May 28, 2010

Away on Craft Business

I'm heading out to Corner Brook today for the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador's Annual General Meeting.  This blog used to have a lot more to do with craft than it has recently.  Going into the AGM, I'm the St. John's representative for the Craft Council.  Over the past couple of weeks, I've been asking craft producers in the St. John's area to send me their latest news and photos.

Marnie Parsons at Running the Goat has a new website that's full of suprises.  According to the website; Running the Goat Books & Broadsides is a micro press that specializes in books, chapbooks, broadsides and poemphlets by Newfoundlanders and Newfoundland-based writers. Most, but not all, of our publications are letterpress printed, using moveable lead type, and sewn by hand.

This one isn't really a St. John's update, but Elias Semigak also has a new website.  Elias creates some of the most sought after soapstone carvings in the Province.  You can get a taste of his work and his life on his site: Stone Artworks by Inuit Carver.  

Photo Credits:
Screen captures from the linked websites

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Few Good Beothuk References

A History and Ethnography of the BeothukThe Beothuk were the indigenous people living on the Island of Newfoundland when Europeans began fishing and settling the area about 500 years ago.  In 1829, the last known Beothuk woman, Shanawdithit, died in St. John's, marking the end of a people and way of life that could trace its roots back over 1000 years.  Here's a list of some of the easier to access and more useful publications written about the Beothuk.

A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk by Ingeborg Marshall was published in 1998 and is the most comprehensive single volume on the Beothuk to date.  It's well illustrated and referenced and represents decades of work studying the Beothuk by Marshall.  Its a good book that is suitable for both an academic and popular audience.

Beothuk of Newfoundland a 
Vanished PeopleMarshall has published other books and papers on the Beothuk over the years and they are all worth owning and reading.  Her books like The Red Ochre People: How Newfoundland's Beothuck Indians lived and The Beothuk of Newfoundland: A Vanished People are written for a more general or younger audience, but as is the case with most books targeted at a young audience they are well illustrated.

One of the earliest books written on the Beothuk is still one of the best,The Beothucks or Red Indians; The Aboriginal Inhabitants of Newfoundland.  It was published by James P. Howley in 1915.  Howley was a geologist who was fascinated by the Beothuk and in his book, which is organized by century, he collects together all of the historical documents, letters, and journal entries that he could find that described the Beothuk.  The plates in the back are also extremely valuable as there are artifacts shown there whose whereabouts are no longer known.  Although, you need to approach the photographs with caution - in the 100 years since Howley's book we have learned a lot more about the pre-contact cultures of Newfoundland and many of the artifacts that Howley assumed to be Beothuk, in fact belong to other cultures.  The entire book and all of the photos, except for those depicting human remains, are online here.

Ralph Pastore was a historian studying the Beothuk through documentary sources, like those collected in Howley's book, but he grew frustrated by the limits of the existing literature and turned to archaeology to answer some of his gnawing questions.  He excavated a large Beothuk site at Boyd's Cove in the 1980s and published academically on the Beothuk throughout his life.  He told the story of the excavations at Boyd's Cove and the Beothuk in an illustrated, full-colour book called Shanawdithit's People, The Archaeology of the Beothuks.  This book is out of print, but I do have a few copies available through Elfshot ($19.95 +tax and shipping).

There have been a number of Beothuk themed theses by archaeology students at Memorial University of Newfoundland and other universities.  They are accessible, but can be a little harder to track down and tend to be written for an academic audience.  Several of the Master's theses from MUN dealing with the Beothuk have been collected together onto CDs.  I prefer to use these .pdf version of these theses on CD rather than the printed version because they are so much easier to search for keywords.  All eight of the volumes in this series, including the two dedicated to the Beothuk/Recent Indians are available through Elfshot for $10ea. +tax and shipping.

Volume 4: Beothuks: In Honour of Dr. Ralph T. Pastore Includes three articles on the Beothuks of Newfoundland by Ralph Pastore. Reprinted by permission. 

G. William Gilbert: Russell's Point (CiAj-1): A Little Passage/Beothuk Site at the Bottom of Trinity Bay. (MA Thesis, Anthropology, Memorial University, May 2002)

Raymond Joseph LeBlanc: The Wigwam Brook Site and The Historic Beothuk Indians (MA Thesis, Anthropology, Memorial University, June 1973)

Laurie Allan McLean: The Beothuk Adoption of Iron Technology (MA Thesis, Anthropology, Memorial University, August 1989)

Gerald Penney: The Prehistory of the Southwest Coast of Newfoundland (MA Thesis, Anthropology, Memorial University, November 1984)

Fred Schwarz: The Little Passage Complex in Newfoundland: A Comparative Study of Assemblages (Honours Dissertation, Anthropology, Memorial University, Spring 1984)

Volume 5: Recent Indians (Beothuks and their Predecessors)

Paul C. Carignan: Prehistoric Cultural Traditions at The Beaches Site, DeAk-1 Bonavista Bay (MA Thesis, Anthropology, Memorial University, December 1973)

Janet Elizabeth Chute: A Comparative Study of The Bark, Bone, Wood and Hide Items Made by the Historic Micmac, Montagnais/Nascapi and Beothuk Indians (MA Thesis, Anthropology, Memorial University, August 1976)

Timothy L. Rast: Investigating Palaeo-Eskimo and Indian Settlement Patterns Along A Submerging Coast at Burgeo, Newfoundland (MA Thesis, Anthropology, Memorial University, January 1999)

David N. Simpson: Prehistoric Archaeology Of The Port Au Port Peninsula, Western Newfoundland (MA Thesis, Anthropology, Memorial University, August 1986)

Michael A. Teal: An Archaeological Investigation of the Gould Site (EeBi-42) in Port Au Choix, Northwestern Newfoundland: New Insight into the Recent Indian Cow Head Complex (MA Thesis, Anthropology, Memorial University, September 2001)

Many researchers are putting copies of their publications online, so even some of the harder to find papers from archaeology journals are becoming easier to access.  One active Beothuk researcher of note is Don Holly at Eastern Illinois University.  You can view several of his Beothuk-themed publications on his Research and Teaching page to get a sense of the ongoing archaeological investigations into the Beothuk.

Finally, if you live in Newfoundland or are planning a visit here, then you can also check out the Beothuk artifacts and information at The Rooms in St. John's, The Mary March Museum in Grand Falls-Windsor,  The Beothuk Interpretation Centre in Boyd's Cove, or the Burnside Archaeology Centre in Burnside.

Photo Credits:
All cover images belong to their respective publishers.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Ground Slate Lances

Ground slate lances with sandstone and metal tools
Ground slate projectile points show up in the archaeological record in Newfoundland and Labrador fairly frequently.  They are found in Palaeoeskimo, Maritime Archaic Indian, and Inuit sites.  In Palaeoeskimo and Inuit sites, ground slate points tend to be small, and likely tipped harpoon heads.  The Maritime Archaic Indians made larger lances and bayonets, that likely tipped longer spears, but as with the harpoon endblades, they were still marine hunting tools.  Lances were flat, like the reproductions in the photos in this post, while the bayonets are narrower, with a triangular cross-section.

Pile of slate
Slate is easy to work.  It splits apart into flat sheets along natural cleavage planes, so setting the thickness is as simple as finding a piece of slate that's already the right thickness for your project.  Its a popular building stone so even if you can't find the stone in nature, you can buy floor tiles or roofing slate that are already nice and thin.  You can roughly trim it into shape using a hammerstone, but it doesn't flake the way chert or flint does and there is a tendency for edge work to carry cracks along cleavage planes into the middle of the stone and unintentionally split the piece in two.  So I'll usually just saw it.  You can use handsaws, but the stone dulls the blade fairly quickly, so I'll use an angle grinder with a masonry or diamond blade.
Slate lances and wet grinding wheel

I have a wet grinding wheel that I use for rough shaping.  Its the same idea as grinding the slate against a sandstone abrader, but uses an electric motor instead of muscle power to operate.   The wheel has a pretty fine grit and it doesn't grind stone all that much faster than manually grinding with sandstone or metal tools, but I find it a little easier on my back and hands.  The biggest drawback is the shape of the wheel - the round surface will leave little dimples all over the flat surface.  I like to finish the lances with wood rasps and metal files, to leave clean, flat surfaces.  Sandstone abraders work as well.  The final polish is accomplished with sandpaper, oil, and rubbing with a leather cloth.

Slate lances from Port au Choix
The original artifacts were most likely designed for piercing the thick blubber layers of marine mammals.  Slate is a very widely available stone and ground slate points are relatively quick and easy to make, but in North America they are extremely rare point types, except on coastal sites.  Slate is softer and more easily damaged than chert points, but can be worked into a long straight, smooth edge. 

Straight slate edge vs. serrated chert edge
A knapped blade will always have a slightly serrated, steak-knife edge, while a slate blade can have the long clean edge of a filleting knife.  Terrestrial game animals, like a deer, are lean and bony, with dense meat and tissue.  Marine game, like seals or fish, will have thick layers of blubber, soft or porous bones, and more flakey muscle.  I used to imagine that seal muscle would be much denser than its fat layer and probably stop most projectiles, but while cleaning the seal bones a couple weeks ago, I was surprised by how flakey it was and how easily it pulled apart.  It really wouldn't offer much resistance to a slate lance.  You could plunge a slate lance a long way into almost any part of a marine mammal before you find a bone that would damage your blade. 

I'd be curious to hear from anyone who knows of slate points from sites belonging to cultures who didn't use marine or coastal resources.

Photo Credits:
1-3,5: Tim Rast
4: From Museum Notes - The Maritime Archaic Tradition

Friday, May 21, 2010

Some days are just not that exciting...

Finished Fibre Optic Spiral Earrings
I'm still plugging away on spring wholesale orders.  All of those fibre optic points in the macaw mosaic last Friday have been wired and most of them have been carded and some of them have been packaged and are ready to ship.  I can count the remaining wholesale orders on one hand now, which is nice.

Unfinished obsidian and chert in the workshop
I'm not sure what today will be like.  Either I'll make a dedicated push in the workshop and get all the flintknapping done for the orders that need to be done by June 1st, or I'll tie up some loose ends and finish some of the small jobs that are distracting me from the last big order.  My work schedule is a little out of sync with the world right now, which tends to happen this time of year or when deadlines are looming.  I seem to be working afternoons and evenings and weekends, with mornings and one or two weekdays being my down time.

Unfinished fibre optic jewelry in the basement
The main goal right now is to get the last of the orders with a June 1st delivery deadline finished up and shipped by the start of next week.  I'd like to spend a few days next week working on the L'Anse aux Meadows reproductions before heading to Corner Brook for the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador's Annual General Meeting.  I'm glad that it will be on the west coast of the Island this year because it gives me a chance to collect rock along the way.

Photo Credits: Tim Rast

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Shaving the Sealskin with Stone

Shaving the sealskin with a chert flake
On Sunday morning, we started shaving the hooded sealskin thong with stone tools.  Its an incredibly slow and labourious process.  I frequently switched to a metal knife, but Lori and Eliza were much more hardcore, sticking to obsidian and chert for the full two hours that we worked.   In the end, between the three of us, we shaved about 35 feet.  We averaged just under 6 feet per hour per person.  That seems crazy to me.  I know it was slow, but would it really take one person 55 hours of labour to shave the entire 335 foot long thong?

335 feet of sealskin is ridiculously long

It looked like a pile of giant spider legs
The thong had easy patches and hard patches to shave.  They probably correspond to areas of the seal's body.  When we cut the hide into a spiral we noticed that the skin around the neck was especially thick, while it was much thinner towards the sides and belly.  Lori felt that the difficult sections to shave were probably the neck sections of the skin.

Obsidian flakes worked well
We tried Ramah Chert, Bloody Bay Cove Rhyolite, chert from Newfoundland, and obsidian.  When shaving with flakes, we found the obsidian worked the best.  Which makes sense - it creates the sharpest edge.  Unfortunately, its not a local stone, so it wouldn't have been available for any precontact culture in the Province to use.  Of the local stone, microblades of Newfoundland chert hafted in a handle were a close second to the obsidian flakes.  The mechanical advantage of the handle seemed to compensate for the slight difference in sharpness.

Here's a clip of Lori demonstrating shaving the hair with an obsidian flake:

Hafted microblades did the job
After this brief experiment, I really think that even the simplest, expedient flake tools would have been mounted in simple hafts.  Microblades certainly would have been - the difference between using a microblade pinched between your fingers and one firmly hafted in a handle is night and day.  Larger flakes could be held and used with some force and precision, but the small utilized flakes and flake scrapers that we find in sites here would be much more efficient tools with a handle.

Here's a clip of Eliza shaving the sealskin with a hafted microblade:

Scraping with a microblade
Amazingly, the same microblade that we used to cut the thong several weeks ago was still sharp enough to scrape the hair off.  Its the tool that I used most often on Sunday, along with an obsidian blade that was long enough to hold relatively comfortably.  When I'd get stuck, or hit one of those difficult patches, I'd switch to a steel knife blade in my leatherman.  Whatever tool we used, it seemed like holding the blade at close to a 90 degree angle to the skin worked the best.  The usewear builds up on the edge of the stone tools much more quickly while shaving than it did while cutting the skin.  The finer grained the stone, the more quickly the working edge became dotted with tiny chips.  The obsidian started to show signs of wear almost immediately.

Concentration required
Even though it was a slow, tedious process, it still required a good degree of concentration.  When you started shaving a new patch of skin, the middle of the thong was the easiest to shave, which left long hairs on either edge.  When you'd go back to work on the edge, I found it very easy to snag any irregularity along the edge and create small nicks in the edge of the thong.  None of us accidentally cut all the way through, but I know that I created a few weak spots in the section that I was working on.  It made me glad that we initially cut the thong a little wider than I needed it in the first place.  I wanted it wider to allow for shrinkage and to give me the chance to trim down irregularities in the cut, but it will also work to remove some of those nicks and pitting.  I think that if those cuts are left in place they will spread and tear, and I'll need to go back and trim them out.

The shaved sealskin
Despite the labour involved, I'm very happy with the results.  The black, scaled look of the shaved thong is exactly the type of finished leather that I'm looking for.  Its an authentic air-dried sealskin that I haven't been able to get from commercially tanned hides, so its going to look great on the reproductions.

Photo Credits:
1,4: Lori White
2,3,5-7: Tim Rast

Videos: Tim Rast

Monday, May 17, 2010

Boiling the Hooded Seal Bones

Eliza and her seal
Wow, what an exhausting weekend.  I spent two full days helping Eliza Brandy cut, boil, and threaten the meat off the hooded seal skeleton.  It was a lot of fun and I learned all kinds of weird and wonderful things about seal anatomy, but it was a very big job.  Despite the cool temperatures and drizzly weather, we had a small army of volunteers help out on Saturday and Lori came by for the full day on Sunday.

A bloody good time!
At the start of Saturday morning, the seal carcass was stored in sections in four big rubbermaid tubs.  The skin was off everything (except the skull and flippers) and the organs were removed, but all the meat and bones were still there.

Soaking the bones
By Sunday evening all the meat was boiled off the bones, with the exception of one or two of the flippers, and the boiled bones were sitting in the lab in detergent solutions for the next stage in the cleaning and degreasing. Ultimately the bones will be clean and white and part of the faunal collection in the Archaeology Department at Memorial University, with the exception of the skull which is going to the Biology Department and a few of the teeth which are going back to the Department of Fisheries and Ocean's to help age the animal.

A boiled femur - they're tiny!
Saturday was a pretty bloody day.  The meat had a very odd consistency.  It didn't really hold together the way beef or chicken does, you could pull it apart with your fingers.  It was like short fibres packed together, maybe a little like an artificial fire log, but wet.  One of the students, Andrew, said it reminded him of fibreglass putty.  After the meat was boiled, it turned a rich brown colour and acted a lot like clay.  You could smoosh it and smear it around with your fingers like greasy mud.  Maybe that's why Amy, who studies ceramics, was so good at cleaning around all the nooks and crannies on the vertebrae.

Hooded seal eyeball - they're huge!
Sorry the pictures are so graphic, but there were some really interesting anatomical details that I think are worth sharing.  The seal's eyes for example, were huge.  Each one was the size of a jelly-filled billiard ball.  Beneath the webbed skin, the front flipper was a lot like a human limb, with short 'arm' bones and very long, flat finger bones.
Hind flipper - a foot evolved into a paddle
But the hind flippers were pretty extraordinary, with tiny short femurs, the size of a bow-tie, and long spidery toes. The most interesting thing about the hind flipper was that the outside toes were about twice the length of the middle toe, making two powerful V-shaped paddles.  In the photo on the left, you can see the five sharp little toe-nails at the end of each digit.

Distal phalange and nail
Cleaned up, those toe bones were pretty weird looking too.  Compared to other animals, all of the limb bones were flattened and the last phalange of each finger and toe have complex little cones to hold the long sharp claws.  With enough boiling the claws came loose and slid off the bone. 
By Saturday evening we had the bulk of the meat removed and all of the bones had at least started to boil.   Sunday was a much cleaner day because we were dealing with cooked meat and gristle, not blood and skin and tendons.  We started the pots boiling in the morning and spent a couple hours working on the sealskin, which I'll talk about in more detail next time.

It looks so tidy in a picture

The goal on Sunday was to get every bone this clean
Ultimately, the skeleton will end up here.
This was a huge job, and its still not really over yet.  Eliza has a bit more boiling to do on one or two flippers and there will still be a few weeks of soaking to get rid of the final bits of tissue and grease still on the bones.  Maybe I can get her to describe the process when its all done. I'll try and get some more photos when everything is finally finished and stored with the rest of MUN's Archaeology bone collection.

Cheeky gull with something from the seal
We were greeted almost immediately by a gull on Sunday morning.  He had one bad leg and a pretty brazen attitude.  He wound up grabbing something out of one of the bags and took off with it.  We didn't see which bag he raided - so it could have been a rib or a piece of cartilage.  If it was a rib, Eliza wanted it back, so we took off after him.  He was accosted by a group of 4 crows along the way and we hoped that the piece would be lost in the skirmish, but he held onto it.  We decided to try rushing him the next time he set it down, but that didn't work, he just picked it up again before he flew away.  He flew straight into the middle of the pond and dropped it in the water, before coming back throughout the day to see what else he could steal.

Is Eliza dejected or plotting revenge in the last photo?
 Photo Credits:
1, 3, 7-10: Tim Rast
 2: Corey Hutchings
4,6: Elaine Anton
5: Amy St John
11,12: Lori White
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