Monday, February 20, 2012

Dorset Palaeoeskimo Pressure Flaker

Walrus bone pressure flakers
I finally made myself a proper Dorset Palaeoeskimo walrus bone pressure flaker/punch.  Its been on the "to-do" list for years and although I've had a walrus baculum around the house for a long time, I haven't been eager to cut it up.  When a friend showed me a drawer full of Palaeoeskimo pressure flakers from Port au Choix, she mentioned that they were probably made from walrus mandibles.  Eventually I managed to get a hold of a walrus jaw bone that was in good enough shape to work with, but not so pristine that it would be a shame to carve it up.

Walrus Mandible
Walrus bones, like walrus ivory tusks, are legal to own in Canada, although they do require a Marine Mammal Transportation License to move them across provincial/territorial boundaries.  The mandible that I have was missing  half of the left side and all of the teeth, but there was still enough good dense bone on the left side to make two pressure flaker blanks from.

The underside of the jaw bone was quite dense, although it still had some of those cat's whisker type pores that I've seen on other walrus bones.

The top of jawbone is more porous
I cut the mandible in half along the midline, so that I still have a fairly complete right side of the jawbone for reference.   The bone was most porous toward the top, where the teeth were and became quite dense along the bottom.  I used the densest part of the bone.   The texture seemed perfect for pressure flaker tips.  Its dense, but doesn't seem as brittle as ivory or dense terrestrial mammal bone.  It seems dense like a solid piece of moose antler.

This is a bone or ivory artifact from an Early Dorset site on Baffin Island.  These things don't come with instructions, but I interpret it as a scarfed pressure flaker tip.  The working end of the flaker on the right is weathered white, while the scarfed end on the left is still fresh and brown from being partially buried.

This is a top view of the artifact and you can see that it tapers slightly towards the base of the scarfed end.  It seems designed to be wedged firmly into place when pressure is applied to the tip, which is consistent with the idea that it is a pressure flaker tip.  Alternatively, it might be a very small ice pick or similar tool.
 For the handle, I used this illustration from Moreau Maxwell's Prehistory of the Eastern Arctic. There is no scale, which on this particular day I was happy with, because it gave me some room to improvise.  I scaled my flakers around the scarf joint.  I wanted that to be 4-5 cm long, as in the artifact.  The tip of the bone flakers that usually show up in the archaeological record are quite short, but I think that's because they are used up and discarded.  I made the tip of my flakers 2-3 times longer than the artifact in the photo above, with the idea that after a few years of heavy use and resharpening, they will wear down and be identical to the archaeological example.  On the wood handle in Maxwell's illustration, the channel gouged to fit the bone flaker is about 2/3 to 3/4 of the entire length.  So, if that channel is 4-5 cm long, then the whole handle must only be 6 to 8 cm long.

I made the flakers longer than the archaeological example so that I would have enough bone to sharpen and reuse the flakers multiple times after they get dull.

Sinew and hide glue hold the flakers together
I'm used to having a little longer handles on my pressure flakers, so I made one handle slightly longer, while keeping one fairly short as in Maxwell's drawing.  The short handled flaker will work as a palm punch.  I also tried to keep the end of the flaker in line with the tip so that the flaker could function as an indirect percussion punch as well as a pressure flaker.  I expected the longer handled flaker to be more comfortable and familiar, but as it turns out, I actually like the feel of the short flaker better.  I'll leave the long one as is for a while, but I expect I'll probably trim a few centimetres off the end at some point.

This style of pressure flaker fits into the palm of the knapper.  You line the flaker up with your radius and ulna to create the force and support that you need to press off flakes.
The finished flakers
I tied the bone tip into the wood handle using sinew and hide glue.  I might try baleen or gut hafting later to create a firmer socket, but for now I'll give sinew a go.  It seems pretty solid, but I'll know better in a few weeks as I work with the tools a bit more.

Patty Wells (the friend who showed me the Port au Choix flakers) sent me this image of flaking tools from the Middle Dorset Palaeoeskimo site at Phillips Garden, Port au Choix.  It looks like the top row artifacts are pressure flakers and the bottom row something else - indirect punches perhaps?
Phillip's Garden bone flaking tools.   I love the one in the middle of the top row. - there's only half a centimetre of working   point left on the thing.  They all look well used.

Photo Credits: 
1-6, 8-11: Tim Rast
7: From Moreau Maxwell, Prehistory of the Eastern Arctic
12: Patty Wells


  1. Sweet! It's nice to use some of the rarer material "ingredients" lying around the house. These look beauty!

  2. Wow Tim! They look great.


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