hacarved ivory harpoon socketpiece
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Harpoon Socketpiece
This carved ivory piece was intended to fit between the harpoon point and the main shaft. The elegant engraving of a beast of prey on the heavy walrus ivory socketpiece was common in Old Bering Sea cultures and served as hunting magic.


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Old Bering Sea Harpoon

old Berind Sea Harpoon illustration

In the toggling harpoon, a female socketed implement was designed to be implanted beneath the skin and blubber with the aid of a slender foreshaft connected to the shaft. toggling harpoon head illustrationThe foreshaft allowed the toggling head to penetrate deeply into the animal so that when the shaft detached, the head twisted sideways beneath the animal's skin and could not be pulled out. The wide distribution of this toggling form in regions of seasonal ice cover clearly demonstrates its superior efficiency for use in icy regions where breakage, either purposeful or accidental, of a protruding butt end would have permitted the animal's escape. Such losses could be substantially reduced, and holding power increased, with the use of the toggling principle.

In actual use, the hunter silently approached his prey in his skin-covered kayak and when within range hurled his weapon. The animal was restrained by the drag created by a float or float board attached to the end of the harpoon line. Alternatively, the line would be attached to the harpoon shaft, which dragged behind and impeded the animal's escape. The actual killing of the harpooned animal was done with a lance or club. Specially designed repeating lances, with successively inserted detachable heads, were employed by Bering Sea Eskimo in killing harpooned white whales (beluga). This technique permitted a large number of animals to be struck in a short time, because the hunter did not have to struggle to withdraw the lance after each use, and each point stayed in the animal with the hunter's own personal mark, facilitating the attribution of its soul.

Walrus harpoons had long foreshafts, permitting the harpoon head to be forced deeply into the animal, and were attached to long lines made from sealskin thong and to sealskin floats, often richly decorated with ornaments and rattles. Because walrus occur in large herds and often defend themselves, hunting was typically carried out from open skin boats carrying four to eight hunters. The successful walrus hunter required strength, courage, and skill, and he had to have the means to maintain his equipment, crew, and boat. For these reasons, walrus hunting had greater social ramifications than seal or sea otter hunting.

Extended to whaling, this type of hunting led to major cultural changes. The development of the boat crews to hunt the larger marine mammals transformed these cultures from fairly small societies into ones that were large and centralized, from which a large labor force of independent hunters could be pooled. Hunting whales required not only the ability to harpoon and kill the animal, but the manpower to tow the carcass ashore. Often this necessitated the effort of several boats; a community action. Success in the hunt meant many months' supply of food for the community, allowing it to stay together; so North Alaska whaling involved an intensification of technology and social forms.

- William W. Fitzhugh, ed. J. Prusinski

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