Friday, February 26, 2010

Palaeoeskimo Side-Hafted Microblades

Microblades are one of the hallmarks of the Palaeoeskimo toolkit. They are parallel sided linear flakes made systematically from a carefully prepared core. Each blade removed sets up the core with long parallel ridges that guide the shape of the next flake. In this way a single core can produce dozens of uniform blades. They have a razor sharp edge along each side. I tend to have the best results making microblades with indirect percussion by striking an antler punch with a heavy antler hammer. Other folks can produce long beautiful blades by simply pushing them off with pressure flaking or through careful percussion work.

Microblades can be further modified into lots of different kinds of tools or hafted as blades into organic tools and weapons as a sharp cutting edge. Microblade knives can either be end-hafted, like a scalpel, or side-hafted to create a kind of straight razor. A complete microblade has a natural curve to it and to get a knife with as straight an edge as possible I trim down the blades that I mount in the handles. Usually I snap off the distal end of the blade because the curve tends to be more exaggerated as the blade wraps around the bottom of the core, although that isn't really true of the blade shown in this photo.
In the Wapusk collection I need to side-haft a microblade and before I get to that one I wanted to make a few practice pieces. Also, I'm doing a flintknapping workshop in Calgary next weekend on the topic of making hafted Palaeoeskimo tools, so I'd like to have a few microblade knives on hand as examples. The Palaeoeskimo often used a two piece haft for side-hafting microblades, with a slotted main handle and a small triangular brace piece to hold the blade securely in place. As one blade dulls, a new one could be popped in its place, just like changing the blades in a disposable razor.

I've used wood handles for this set of knives because they are meant to be practice for the Wapusk reproduction and there were lots of woodworking tools found at Seahorse Gully (not shown). There are also good references for wood microblade handles in collections from Labrador that are stored at The Rooms (shown here).
The Avayalik Island site has lots of wooden handles, including this style of microblade handle. In these photos of wood artifacts from Avayalik Island, you can see the general shape of the handles and the slots for the microblades. The reproduction in the photo is an earlier side hafted microblade that I mounted in a bone handle of the same design.

So, I have made these before using bone and antler, but ever since seeing the Avayalik Island wood handles, I've wanted to try them in wood. I really like the way the wood handles work. The microblades are extremely sharp, but they are very fragile. A harder material like bone can crush the blade quite easily while you mount it, but the wood yields and the blade will sink into the soft wood without crushing to create an even firmer mount. I noticed this especially with the small brace piece. Wet antler would behave the same. For this particular pair of microblade knives I used sinew lashing, although I'll try to use baleen to bind the rest together.

Photo Credits
: Tim Rast

Photo Captions:
1: Microblades and the antler punch I used to make them
2: A side view of the longer blade in the set
3: The pieces of a side-haft Palaeoeskimo microblade handle
4: looking down the microblade slots on the wood Avayalik Island handles
5: Side by side comparison of the wood handles and a bone handled reproduction
6: The knives as they are assembled
7: Finished side hafted Palaeoeskimo microblade knives with sinew binding and wood handles.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Working with the Wapusk Artifacts

I'm working on the reproductions for Wapusk National Park. I have the paper patterns that I printed from photos that I took on the first visit, but its always good to compare the reproductions to the originals. No matter how many reference photos that I have, there's nothing like comparing the pieces side by side. In the photo on the right, the reproduction endblade is in the middle and is flanked on the left by the artifact and on the right by my paper pattern.

One way that I can compare the reproduction to the artifact is to try fitting the handles on the original artifacts. In the photo to the left the blade in the handle is the artifact. The reproduction is below and I can see that it needs a bit more resharpening before it is an exact match for the dimensions of the artifact. If the reproduction handle is good, then it should fit the original artifact just as snugly as it fits the reproduction blade. In some ways, I make a handle that fits the artifact and then a reproduction that fits the handle. I've mentioned before how the people who made these tools would have a different perspective on them than us. For them, the stone blade would be the temporary, disposable part and the handle would be the curated and reused part of the tool. Retooling the same handle with multiple blades would help create a more uniform toolkit over time. I can use that same idea to help make a more accurate reproduction. The handle is new, but by refitting first the artifact and then the reproduction I have a continuous chain from the old to the new version.

The side-by-side comparisons are also useful because I can use the artifact as the pattern and copy exactly the angles and dimensions that I need directly onto the reproduction. These marks are very useful and if I can get back into the shed and work the piece quickly enough after The Rooms visit, then I can still visualize the modifications that need to make and remember how the artifact sits next to the reproduction.

The snow goggles are a pretty cool piece of technology and are relatively simple to make. Snow goggles are a very old form of sunglasses, that cut the glare reflected off of ice and snow to help protect the wearer from snow blindness. Matching the exact dimensions of the artifact slows the build down a bit, but if you were to make a pair for yourself they'd be pretty quick and easy. They are made from a softwood tree trunk, with a diameter of about 40 cm * - which is pretty much the thickness of an old Christmas tree. The inside is scooped out to fit around your nose and eyes and the outside is bevelled to match. If I were making a pair for myself to wear, I'd probably do most of the work on the inside of the goggles first so that it fits comfortably on my face, and then work the outside last. They won't fit over glasses, but if you are like me and squinting your eyes helps you see a little more clearly with your prescription glasses off, snow goggles create a similar effect. You won't get 20/20 vision, but things are a little less blurry when you look through the eye slits.

Photo Credits: Tim Rast

Photo Captions:
1: Wapusk endblade comparison
2: Wapusk knife comparison, artifact is in the handle and the reproduction blade is below
3: Side-by-side with the Wapusk Snow Goggles
4: Snow goggles, ready for the next round of modifications

*Edit: January 23, 2013. 40cm? What the?  I'm going to guess that I meant 4cm or 40mm.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Ramah Wrap-Up

The Rooms demo went well yesterday. There was a steady stream of people throughout the afternoon. I finished one point and started on a second biface. Almost every kind of stone tool from every precontact culture found in Newfoundland and Labrador was made from Ramah chert on occasion, but I'm always drawn to the Maritime Archaic stemmed points that came from Saglek Bay.

Jim Tuck wrote this about Ramah Chert in 1976 and it sums up why I like making the Saglek style stemmed points:

Ramah chert apparently has the qualities that allow it to be easily flaked into tools and weapons that are thin, symmetrical, and appear to us to be very well and carefully made. In fact this material may have been so superior in its flaking attributes to quartzite, quartz crystal, and other substances formerly in use, that it actually brought about some significant changes in the form (rather than the "finish") of many Maritime Archaic chipped stone artifacts. The thick, rather small projectile points, made prior to about 5,000 years ago, are replaced by much thinner examples, very flat in cross-section, with longer stems, much more even edges, surfaces, and a greater degree of symmetry. (Jim Tuck, Newfoundland and Labrador Prehistory 1976)

Some tools types are so strongly associated with a particular type of stone that they just don't look right unless they are made from that specific kind of rock. That's the case with Ramah Chert and the Saglek style of stemmed points. I like the idea that discovering this new source of stone 5000 years ago actually allowed the Maritime Archaic people to create new kinds styles of tools.

Photo Credits:
1, 3: Tim Rast
2: Jim Tuck, Newfoundland and Labrador Prehistory, National Museum of Man 1976

Photo Captions:
1: Ramah Chert Maritime Archaic Reproduction knapped point
2: Ramah Chert artifacts from Saglek Bay
3: Ramah point and antler pressure flaker used to make it

Friday, February 19, 2010

Wapusk National Park Artifacts

Its been a very hectic week. I'm having trouble sleeping again because work is getting so exciting. On Tuesday I had a first peak at a set of Palaeoeskimo and Thule/Inuit artifacts from Wapusk National Park in Manitoba. Wapusk is a Cree word meaning "White Bear" and earns its name because the park protects the world's largest polar bear denning area. I'll be making reproductions of these pieces for Parks Canada to use in their interpretive programming. The goal with this project is to make reproductions as close to the originals as possible, but instead of antiquing them to match the look of the artifacts, I'll be hafting them in handles and finishing them as they would have appeared new.

The lithics in the collection come from a Pre-Dorset site within the park called Seahorse Gully. The Pre-Dorset component of the site has a date of 2900 BP, and the styles of artifacts remind me a lot of some of the earlier Groswater Palaeoeskimo tools found in Newfoundland and Labrador. There's an asymmetric knife, a microblade, a burin and burin spall, a side scraper and a plano-convex endblade, with stemmed hafting areas very similar to Groswater artifacts.

The snow goggles are Neoeskimo. Neoeskimo is a term that I've been able to avoid so far because I've usually known the age of the artifacts that I'm working with and they were either clearly Thule or clearly Inuit. Neoeskimo is a more general term that includes both Thule and Inuit, without making any assumptions about age. Its handy to use here because I don't know how old the goggles are. This style of snow goggle is not Palaeoeskimo, but I don't know exactly how old they are so I'd be guessing if I called them Thule or Inuit. However, its safe to say that they are Neoeskimo.

Photo Credits: Tim Rast

Photo Captions:
1: Wapusk Artifacts to be reproduced with handles and missing pieces
2: Seahorse Gully Asymmetric Knife
3: Neoeskimo snow goggles from Wapusk National Park

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Ramah Chert Maritime Archaic Spear

I recently completed a special reproduction using Ramah chert, which was intended as a surprise gift. Its been delivered, so its safe to post about it now. Ramah chert is an almost impossible stone for a flintknapper to get to work, unless you know an archaeologist who has been given special permission to collect samples of the rock from the quarry.

I'm allowed to work the stone for experimental and educational purposes, but its not something that I can sell. Stuart, a colleague of mine who was fortunate enough to visit the quarry and collect samples of Ramah chert, commissioned me to work his Ramah core into a reproduction of a Maritime Archaic Indian spear as a gift for his thesis supervisor, who also works in Labrador. The core was an unworked brick shaped nodule. I worked it entirely with stone and antler. My percussion tools are alway stone and antler, but I do use copper-tipped pressure flakers in a lot of my work, although I don't like using copper on Ramah. I started using antler pressure flakers on Ramah during demonstrations for a more authentic feel, but now I genuinely prefer working the material with antler pressure flakers, even when there's no one watching. Antler just grips the edge better. I think that the slightly wider and softer tip of an antler tine is better suited to the sugary texture of Ramah.

The spearpoint in the reproduction is 4 inches long and based on the very cool stemmed points from Saglek Bay in Northern Labrador. The original artifacts are amongst the earliest and most distinctive stone tools made from Ramah chert and the occupation at Saglek Bay dates between 4530 and 3890 years ago.

The shaft is made from a quarter of a split spruce pole. Its from the pole that I was splitting with the assistance of the pièces esquillées a couple weeks ago. Interestingly, this spruce pole is a recycled piece of wood from an earlier art installation by Janet Davis.
Her husband, Duke, originally harvested it to use as one of the poles in the fish flake that supported Janet's massive hooked rug called Clifford's Education Fund, while it was on display in St. John's. I like the notion of reusing the wood as I can imagine exactly the same scenario happening in the past. The poles used in smoking or drying racks by the Maritime Archaic Indians would have been a good source of seasoned wood for spear shafts and other implements when the need arose.

Stuart and I talked about foreshafts, but since there's no wood preservation from Maritime Archaic sites its impossible to know whether or not they used spears with foreshafts. Either scenario seems plausible and for simplicity's sake we opted for a spear without a foreshaft. In the end, its 5'11" long and covered in red ochre. The lashing on the spear is rawhide and I like the idea of coating the spear with red ochre mixed with oil, especially over the binding area, as a form of waterproofing. Plus, it just looks really cool.

Maritime Archaic Indian Spear Reproduction
(Ramah Chert, spruce, rawhide, hide glue, sealskin, red ochre)
Private Commission

Its a light throwing spear, almost an oversized dart, which I kind of like. I wrapped a sealskin binding around the balance point to create a javelin grip for it, and when you hold it you just want to throw it at something. But its also light enough that if the Maritime Archaic Indians used some form of spear thrower, then this could be a large atlatl dart. There's no direct evidence for spear throwers amongst the Maritime Archaic of Newfoundland and Labrador, but it seems plausible, probably even likely, that they had the technology. We just don't have any proof yet.

If you are in St. John's and interested in learning more about Ramah Chert, I'll be knapping a piece this Sunday, February 21st, 2010, at The Rooms. Everyone's welcome!

Photo Credits:
1-4,6-8: Tim Rast
5: Janet Davis

Photo Captions:
1: The finished spearpoint against a background of Ramah Flakes
2: Stuart's Ramah core and the tools used to work it
3: The Ramah Chert point used in the reproduction
4: The split spruce pole
5: Clifford's Education Fund by Janet Davis
6: The rawhide lashing in place and drying - the purple rubber band is there to smooth down the edges of the rawhide as it dries
7: The complete spear: Ramah Chert, Spruce, Rawhide, Hide Glue, Sealskin, and Red Ochre
8: The finished spear

Monday, February 15, 2010

Palaeoeskimo DNA: A Haircut Makes the Man

Four thousand years ago, a man in Greenland got a haircut and because of that, the whole world knows more about him today than he knew about himself. Mats of his hair were preserved in permafrost for millenia. Eventually they were collected by archaeologists and studied by a team of geneticists. They published their results in Nature last week in an article called Ancient Human Genome Sequence of an Extinct Palaeo-Eskimo. Roughly 80% of this Saqqaq Palaeoeskimo man's genome was recovered from his hair. Interestingly, the site of this haircut was Qeqertasussuk in Greenland, which I've blogged about before, because its the source of the stunningly preserved wood and baleen handles that I had such fun reproducing a few weeks ago.

Archaeological research during the last half of the 20th Century backed up what the Inuit have been saying all along, that they were not the first people to live in the Arctic - that the Tunit were there before them. Archaeologists call the Tunit "Palaeoeskimos" and their sites and artifacts confirm that there were people living in the Arctic for several thousand years before the Inuit arrived. The Palaeoeskimo used a completely different toolkit and lived in a different way than the Inuit and their immediate ancestors, the Thule, who populated the Eastern Arctic sometime within the last 1000 years.

Genetic research is beginning to fill in even more of the story. Culturally, there is no continuity between the Palaeoeskimo and the Thule (Tunit and Inuit), but there doesn't appear to have been any genetic continuity either. The Palaeoeskimo people are as extinct as their culture. There was a fascinating paper published in 2005 that suggests that the Palaeoeskimo bloodline may have continued into the the 20th century with the enigmatic Sadlermuit people of Southhampton Island(*), but the new analysis of the Saqqaq hair gives us a glimpse at the very earliest times in this ancient and vanished branch of our family tree. The DNA in the Sadlermuit study came from skeletal remains, whereas the new research reported in Nature is based on hair samples and provides a much more detailed reconstruction of a Palaeoeskimo genome. Given the fact that the Palaeoeskimo are extinct, its an important accomplishment that the researchers have been able to recover any DNA at all.

The new research offers fascinating details of one Palaeoeskimo man. There are genes there that tell the researchers that he was dark skinned, with brown eyes, shovel shaped incisors, dry earwax, A+ blood, and a predisposition to heart disease and early hairloss. He was lactose and gluten intolerant, cold adapted with a high BMI and percentage of body fat and unable to taste "bitter". (source .pdf of the image on the right) He's not related to the Inuit living in Greenland today, but he does have ancestors amongst 3 living groups on the Siberian side of the Bering Straits. According to the genome, the split between the Saqqaq Palaeoeskimo people and their Siberian relatives took place sometime between 6400 and 4400 years ago, which corresponds nicely with the oldest dates for Palaeoeskimo sites in the Arctic. There are even some very personal details about the man's family, like the fact that his parents were probably first cousins, or similarily close relatives.

Everything in the article and its supporting information fits with what we thought we knew about the Palaeoeskimo from decades of archaeological research. But that doesn't mean that it doesn't contain new information or make it any less remarkable. Take the timing and origin of the Palaeoeskimo migration into the Eastern Arctic from the Bering Straits, for example. Through the painstaking excavation of dozens, probably hundreds, of Palaeoeskimo sites from one end of the Arctic to the other and the careful analysis of tens of thousands of artifacts and hundreds of radiocarbon samples, archaeologists came to the same conclusion that was contained in a single exceptionally well-preserved haircut; that the Palaeoeskimos migrated eastward into the Arctic sometime before 4500 years ago from the Bering Straits. Archaeologists working in the North have known about this seperate migration into North America for decades, but if you follow the reporting of this story online, the evidence contained in the hair is far more convincing to most people than all those decades of previous research.

Additional online references can be found here:

* Hayes et al. Molecular Archaeology of the Dorset, Thule, and Sadlermiut: Ancestor-Descendant Relationships in Eastern North Amercian Arctic Prehistory. in Contributions to the Study of the Dorset Palaeo-Eskimos.

Photo Credits:
1,3-5: From Nature and the Saqqaq Genome Project
2: Tim Rast

Photo Captions:
1: Cover of Nature, Feb 11, 2010
2: Elfshot reproductions of Saqqaq tools from the Qeqertasussuk site, Greenland
3: From Hair to DNA
4: From Genotype to Phenotype
5: Artist's reconstruction of the Saqqaq man, nicknamed "Inuk". by Nuka Godfredsen.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Flintknapping Followup - Introducing Percussion

My job is generally fairly solitary. I work at home, alone most of the time, and have a pretty comfortable routine. The last two days of demos and workshops have really been a lot of fun for me. It was great to experience flintknapping from different points of view. The grade 5 kids on Wednesday were fantastic - check out this great drawing that Shauna did while I was chipping away!

We had an excellent turn out at the percussion workshop, with 11 knappers around the tarp, including myself. I have a patter down when I'm doing a knapping demo that emphasizes the predictable nature of the rock and the control that the knapper has over his or her work. The core I worked last night did everything in its power to prove me wrong, but it did provide some great opportunities to talk about all the bad kinds of flake terminations and why bifaces break in the middle when you hit them on the end. It was the right demonstration for things to go wrong and the participants did a great job of working their cores. There was some trepidation to make that first strike, but after everyone was set up and rolling, they did great - lots of good flakes, unifaces and bifaces.

There's no substitute for practice, but understanding some of the theory behind how a rock breaks - something that archaeologists call "fracture mechanics" - will really help you work your stone. The most fundamental part of the process is the Hertzian Cone.

Knappable rocks have a high silica content and a stone like obsidian is actually natural volcanic glass. If you've ever shot a BB at a window and seen the little cone of glass that pops out the other side, then you've seen a hertzian cone. The cone is a fracture in the glass that starts at a small point on the surface and expands radially outward as it travels into the surface.

Striking a core with a hammerstone in the middle will create these little cones under the surface of the rock, but they won't detach a usable flake. The secret is to move that cone to the edge of the rock and strike it at an angle so that part of the cone slices through the edge of the core. By changing the angle that you hold the rock, you can change the length of the flake. Striking at a steep angle will give you a longer flake, while striking at a shallow angle will give you a shorter flake. I like to support the core on my thigh on a big piece of leather and strike it with the hammerstone straight up and down. I don't change the angle of my hammerstone, that stays perfectly vertical, the only angle that I change is the core, by sliding it up or down the outside of my thigh, supporting the flake the whole time.

A good platform will be flat, meet a face at a 90 degree angle or less, and will have a ridge below it to guide the flake. The surface of the core that will form the back of the flake is really important. A nice ridge or two from previous flake scars create good highways for flakes to travel along. A more irregular surface, or one with fractures cutting across it will stop your flakes short. The length of your flake is determined in a large part by the angle that you strike the core, but its also influenced by the flakes thickness and you control the thickness of the flakes by how close to the edge you strike the core.

If you hit the core close to the edge you will get a narrow flake. They can still be quite long, if you have a good ridge for the flake to follow along. Check out this beauty made by one of the knappers last night. She created this nice long blade while thinning down a biface of English flint.

If you strike the platform farther back from the edge, then you'll get a thicker flake and if you position it so that it follows two or more ridges, then you'll get a wider flatter flake that will be good for further reduction. A flake that follows a single ridge will be triangular in cross-section and can be tricky to work into a biface, but a flake that follows two ridges will have a trapezoidal cross-section and be nice and flat to turn into a tool.

But that's just the theory. Doing that in real life is a little trickier and comes with the pricetag of a lot of practice and a small pharmacy worth of bandaids.

Photo Credits:
1,4-12: Tim Rast
2,3,13: Lori White

Photo Captions:
1: Tim Rast Flintkapper by Shauna
2: The Homo erectus corner
3: Flintknapping Workshop Feb 11, 2010
4: Hertzian Cone diagram
5: Hammerstone and obsidian flakes
6: Hertzian Cone diagram showing the result of hitting a core away from the edge.
7: Hertzian cone in the middle of a rock
8: You can see how the cone sliced this flake off the core
9: Change the angle of the stone and strike the core on the edge to detach a flake
10: You can make long linear blades on a core by striking a platform above a ridge
11: A very nice blade!
11: You can make wider flatter flakes by positioning you platform over two ridges
12: Practice! practice! practice!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Open Minds Demo Day

Today is another day at The Rooms with grade 5 students in the Open Minds program. I had such an awesome time with the class two weeks ago, that I can't wait to get in there this afternoon. Its like a half day of show and tell. I do about an hour long flintknapping demonstration with a selection of reproductions to pass around for the kids to look at. We talk about why people made stone tools and how they were used while they watch me work a core into a finished spear point. After that, the kids go back to their tables with some of the reproductions where they draw and describe them.

The grade fives are such a perfect age for this sort of thing, too. Two weeks ago, when I was explaining how sinew is string from animal tendons and that tendons are those tight cables in your wrists and ankles they thought it was the coolest thing and everyone was playing with their wrists. I told the same thing to a class of grade eight kids in a demo a few years ago and they gasped and looked faint. Although to be fair to those kids I may have missed the part in the explanation about using animal tendons, and they thought human forearms were the preferred source of sinew.

In grade 5, in Newfoundland and Labrador, the kids learn about the Beothuk, so they have more of a background for a flintknapping demonstration than the average person. But they can ask some tough questions, like "how do you know where to hit the rock"? which is a little like asking a painter how they know where to put the next brush stroke. Answering that one question is the topic of the flintknapping class that I'm teaching tomorrow evening, and even there we'll just be scratching the surface. By the way, there are still a couple of spaces available if you'd like to RSVP through Facebook or send me an e-mail.

It can be tough to summarize how a knapper decides where to hit the rock, because the piece that the knapper is working is constantly changing and the decisions that you make are influenced by problems that you are trying to solve at the moment, or avoid in the future, the physics of how a knappable rock breaks, and the final shape that you are aiming for (your mental template). Early on in the knapping process there are relatively few variables to consider when deciding where to strike a core to produce a flake. A core should have a nice flat platform that meets a face at about 90 degrees and it should be positioned over a ridge or two that will guide the flake. As you progress through the piece your decisions become more complex and there are more variables to keep track of. I'm working on a couple of handouts for tomorrows workshop that explain the important concepts in percussion knapping, which I'll summarize in a future post or two.

Hey -this just in - while I was editing this post, I noticed that a really cool blog that I follow called Northwest Coast Archaeology just profiled Elfshot: Sticks and Stones today. Check it out: Elfshot: Experimental and Replicative Technology!

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

Photo Captions:
1: You can see the minds opening in this photo!
2: The classroom in the middle of The Rooms. Just amazing.
3: Tim knapping.
4: Antler billets ready for the percussion workshop.
5: Planning to detach a flake of obsidian using a hammerstone.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Baleen Braces for the Tuktut Nogait Bow

I posted some photos of the Tuktut Nogait reproduction bow on a forum dedicated to recreating ancient technology, called Palaeoplanet. The feedback there was very useful. One question was whether or not there were any splints or braces under the lashing on the bend in the limb. There wasn't, but there should have been, so I added some. They don't change the appearance of the bow, but they make a marked difference in performance.

The original bow was in two pieces with a splice in one limb, so I assumed that there would be lashing at that point, and possibly a brace piece, although no additional bow parts were found with the Tuktut Nogait bow. The bow is flat across the back and most of the limb has a curved belly, creating a D-shaped cross section, except at the knee in the limb, where the splice would be lashed onto the rest of the limb. At that point the limb has a rectangular cross section for about 4 inches, which is the area that I wrapped the lashings around. The same spot on the complete limb had a similar rectangular cross section, which seemed to mark the position of the tight lashing. I added the lashings thinking that it might help strengthen the limb, but also so that the bow would look more like I imagined the original would have looked.

However, from a bow making perspective, that is just adding useless weight to the limb for no reason. I dug a bit more and found some excellent analogs for the Tuktut Nogait bow in Karen McCullough's The Ruin Islanders. These bows are much earlier than I imagined the Tuktut Nogait bow to be, but they are such good matches in the shape of the limbs and nocks that it made me rethink the reproduction I was working on. The Ruin Island bows were found on Ellesmere Island, well above the tree line and a long way from Tuktut Nogait National Park, but there are many similarities. The Ruin Island bows made heavy use of baleen, in fact some of the smaller bows are entirely made from baleen. Others combined wood and baleen, using baleen as brace pieces on the back of the bow in the knees, which is exactly where the bow makers on Palaeoplanet suggested my bow might need reinforcement. If the braces on the Tuktut Nogait bow were originally baleen then differences in preservation might explain why they were not found along with the wood components, even though the wood part of the bow seems designed to fit them.

The baleen braces were quick and easy to make, I just cut ovals out of baleen using the scroll saw and sanded down the edges to a smooth taper around the edge. I boiled them and bent them into a slight curve that would fit the recurve of the bow and lashed them into place. Interestingly, the 71 feet of braided sinew that I've been using for the cable fit perfectly this time. Every other time that I've wrapped the cable I had 18-24 inches left over. I thought that the cord might be stretching when I wrapped it, but I measured it again this time and its still 71 feet long. I also weighed everything while it was apart.

Here are the specs:
  • Wood, yew (50"): 223 g
  • Braided sinew, (71'): 104 g
  • Baleen braces, (4 1/2"): 10 g x 2
  • Sinew bowstring, 2-ply, (49"): 12 g
  • Sealskin cable lashing on grip (18"): 3 g
  • Total Weight: 362 g
I lashed the baleen in place as firmly as I could and restrung the cable very tightly. The bow has settled back into its usual shape, but at first it was almost braced backwards from the tension in the cable. I haven't been able to shoot it yet, because the snow around here is too deep right now and I'd lose the arrows, but I like how it feels with the braces and tighter cable. The knees of the limbs no longer feel like the weakest point in the limb, they feel like the strongest. The draw weight of the bow also shot up. It now draws about 34 pounds at 24" without any twists in the cable - which was the draw weight of the bow without braces after 3 cable twists (the lines overlap in the graph below). Now, with two twists in the cable, it has a draw weight of 36 pounds at 24", shown on the graph in orange, which is the highest I've seen yet.

I can't wait for some of this snow to go and try shooting it. Although to be honest, its still tough to draw to 24 inches without the string popping off the nocks. The next time I take the cable off, I'll probably steam and bend the recurves a little more and see if that helps change the string angle a bit.

The Ruin Island bows seem to have had identical nocks to the Tuktut Nogait bow and the angle of the recurve in the complete bows looks to be quite extreme. Incidentally, the house features where the majority of the Ruin Island bows were found were radiocarbon dated between 580 and 1120 years old. These bows have much more in common with the Tuktut Nogait bow than any of the ethnographic bows that I've seen from the area and make me wonder if the Tuktut Nogait bow isn't older than expected.

Photo Credits:
1-4, 7-10: Tim Rast
5,6,11: From The Ruin Islanders by Karen McCullough

Photo Captions:
First: lashing in a baleen brace
Second: Tuktut Nogait bow drawn to 22" with baleen braces in place
Third: Braced bow showing the lashed in baleen
Fourth: Braced bow with baleen in place
Fifth: Ruin Island phase bows
Sixth: Ruin Island baleen brace pieces (middle row and bottom), sinew twisters (top)
Seventh: Baleen braces for the Tuktut Nogait bow
Eighth: The braces in place
Ninth: Tying down the cable - that's tight!
Tenth: Graph of draw weights of the Tuktut Nogait bow with various settings
Eleventh: Ruin Island Phase bow limb fragments
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