3-part harpoon, St. Lawrence Island

While modern technology has replaced many of the traditional tools that enabled Inuit to survive in the Arctic, one of their fundamental hunting weapons, the harpoon, continues in use to the present day. Essentially, the harpoon is a spear designed to secure a detachable point, or head, to an animal; a line attached to the head allows the hunter to retrieve the quarry once it has been struck. Harpoons have a wide distribution throughout the world, but it is among the Inuit that the most complex pre-industrial forms were developed. The primary use of the Inuit harpoon was for hunting sea mammals, both at breathing holes in the sea ice and in open water, although in some arctic areas the harpoon was used for fish as well.

Harpoon heads generally belonged to one of two major groups. One kind had a projecting tang at its base, which was inserted into a socket piece on the end of the shaft. Barbs projecting from the body of this type of head ensured that it stayed embedded in the flesh of the animal once it was harpooned. The other variety had a socket at the base of the head to receive the tip of a foreshaft. After being thrust into an animal, one or more spurs at the base of the head dug into its flesh; tension on the harpoon line, which passed through a hole above the socket, then caused the head to rotate No, preventing it from slipping out. This variety, called the toggle harpoon head, was the more common form in Inuit cultures and is the type offered for sale here.

This harpoon comprises 3 parts: harpoon head, the foreshaft and a socket piece. The socket piece would have been inserted into a long shaft. The harpoon shaft was made of wood, if available, as it would then float. In areas where wood could not be obtained, the shafts were fashioned from narwhal tusk or from several pieces of bone or antler spliced together. It is extremely rare to find 3 original elements of an excavated harpoon. Additionally, the example on offer has an unusual curve as it was probably designed to enable the hunter to reach animals hiding under ice floes.

15th - 16th century AD
Walrus ivory
Length: 21 in

Excavated on St. Lawrence Island
Jeffrey Myers, New York

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