One fine artifact from the cultures of the Western Arctic

Found this cool thing in the collection the other day, it was boxed with American colonial and Eastern Woodlands artifacts but one glance and I had my doubts.

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It appears to be a nephrite stone mallet bound with rawhide onto a handle of reindeer or caribou leg bone. It was a thrill to find it because it is in perfect condition, but a little bit disappointing in the end because it can’t go into our new exhibition on the colonial history of the Old Dartmouth region. It didn’t really look like your average Algonquin artifact. It turned out to be either a North Slope Inuit or a Chukchi [Siberia] people’s tool called a kautaq used when crushing bones to extract the marrow, called puiniq. Such tools are generally large and heavy, but this one is somewhat smaller and could also have been used to pound fish fillets into flakes. This was women’s work and arduous but a woman who knew how to do it properly was much esteemed in the family. The bone marrow is extremely nutritious and if prepared properly keeps for quite a long time. Good winter food apparently. A good description of the tool can be found on the Echospace website http://www.echospace.org/articles/363/print.html:

“The kautaq or hammer used to crush the bones was made of an oblong stone mounted on a short slightly curved handle. Some families prided themselves on having a jadestone hammerhead, but any rock plucked from a stream bed that was of the right size, shape and weight could serve just as well. Elders cautioned that the hammer’s striking face should have a flat, rough textured surface. This helped prevent the hammer from slipping off the bone as the crushing blows were struck. The handle of the hammer could be made from a number of materials. Some people used dall sheep horn, others a curved section of caribou antler, while others still preferred spruce or alderwood. The handle was usually less than six inches long and slightly curved to fit comfortably in a person’s hand. The head and handle were joined by a caribou or sealskin thong that was passed through a hole drilled near the top end of the handle, and wrapped around the stone head several times. A tight secure fit was assured by doing the lashing with a wet, water soaked thong, which shrank and tightened as it dried. Later, small wooden wedges could be added to shim up the fit, if they were needed.”

It’s a wonderful object inducing marvel in its elegant simplicity. It’s probably late 19th or early 20th century but in essence it could have been made any time in the last 5000 years.

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