Harpoons – some exciting insights!

Posted on Nov 6, 2014 in Prince Rupert Update, What's New

Readers may remember some of the earlier posts we did on harpoons: Line Guard Harpoons, Drilled, and Barbed Slate.

Now that we’ve finished defining the areas of the sites that make sense to compare (3D archaeology) and temporal components, we are ready to do some 4D archaeology, adding in the time elements.  Some really cool patterns are starting to come out of the data.  The map below (click for full size) uses pie diagrams to show the type and number of specific harpoon types summarized by different areas and time periods.  The types that are of limited interest (like small fragments of barbs) are left off the map, and that helps show the things that ARE different more clearly. Our GIS department head, Alyssa Parker, has developed this method of translating 4D (3D + time) data to a two-dimensional format.

Harpoon types mapped by age.

Harpoon types mapped by age.  This is “4D” to “2D” transformation. Click to enlarge


Some things perhaps should have been obvious earlier, like the fact that ALL the drilled hole harpoons come from  GbTo-54 (see the green parts of the pies); but for whatever reason, that pattern got missed until we did this mapping. And that is really the whole point of doing analysis anyway! Often, there is something very obvious that just get missed and everything tends to ‘blur’ with just a casual examination of thousands of artifacts.   Also not noticed previously was that almost all the unilateral line guard notched harpoons (blue and orange) came from GbTo-13.  With about 4 times the number of artifacts at GbTo-54 compared to 13, we’d expect about 28 of these artifacts to occur at GbTo-54, but only 2 were found there, and perhaps of interest, in the southern end of the site in Areas 1 and 4.  All the shouldered line guards are from AU3 in Area 5. The one bilaterally barbed (‘looks like a Christmas tree’) harpoon came from the oldest part of the site at GbTo-54 (purple), as we’d expect from the findings from other areas all over the coast.

So why should the two sites have almost completely different harpoon types when it seems that they were lived in at the same time?  I think part of the reason for this may be found in the adawk, or traditional stories of the Tsimshian, as we have been able to access them through on-line versions of ethnographic writing.  These stories are full of details of people being able to identify arrows as specific to an ethnic group, a village, or even a clan group within a village.  The details people were using were things like the painted patterns on guiding feathers on the arrows. Unlike arrows, the whole harpoon doesn’t stay embedded in what they hit, however.  The shaft  and foreshaft are made to detatch and float free, while just the head stays embedded in the animal. The attached lines and floats (which would be easy to mark and identify) may also break away. The head will stay in, however.  Many groups on the Northwest Coast had protocols for sharing the meat of an animal with anybody that had helped to capture it.  Having distinctive harpoons (and also see the earlier blog post showing a maker’s mark on a harpoon) would likely help your family and community.  The details of harpoon line attachment may have been a key differentiation for different corporate groups, not merely a stylistic whim that changed through time.

We have lots of other pie-chart maps for other things that show surprising differences (and surprising similarities) between village sites, or between areas within sites.   We’ll keep bringing you these as we go.



  1. Great idea about the affiliation of the harpoon heads. Where/how close is 13 in relation to 54? If they’re quite separate I wonder, wouldn’t you need to be differentiating your harpoons from those you hunt with most frequently, i.e., your housemates or village mates? That is, I might expect harpoons to be house-specific within a village but not village specific at a more regional scale.

  2. Quentin, my responses seem to get eaten regularly. The “sites” are about 300 m apart. I think your housemates are likely to recognize and acknowledge your harpoons without extra markings. I think the real ones you need to ‘signal’ are those outside your immediate kin group. Although, reading over Coupland’s “A chief’s house speaks” chapter, there are other villages in Prince Rupert Harbour (specifically, McNichol Creek) where only one household hardly ever hunted sea mammals and other houses didn’t at all. In these cases marking your gear wouldn’t be necessary at all – but that will be a subject of another blog.

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