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The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Tribal Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Actic
Old Bering Sea
Harpoon Point
Walrus Ivory, 3” Length, c.500AD
Old Bering Sea  Harpoon Point

The invention of the pivoting harpoon point by ancient hunters from the Old Bering Sea period was their single most important technical advancement. It allowed the development of organized, predictable hunting for large sea mammals, such as seal, walrus and whales, establishing the foundation for a stable and flourishing culture.

The pivot harpoon is an impressive piece of engineering, and its basic form and purpose is still in use today. It has a central hole and line guide, through which would have been strung a sturdy sinew cord, lashing the point to a series of composite elements, made of ivory and wood: socket handle, connecting pin, lance, and counterweight. With the exception of the wooden lance, all the elements would have been engraved, in a manner not unlike the example here, an expression of their perpetual re-use and high value. The leading, pointed edge of the harpoon pivot would typically be, as here, slotted, to receive a stone blade, which would be replaceable over time. In fact, some harpoon points have been found fitted with iron blades, expressing that they continued to be used over numerous generations, well across time periods of technical advancements and the advent of new materials.

Once struck into an animal’s hide, the harpoon point would lodge itself under the skin, and the tension of the cord connecting the harpoon components together would force the point to pivot 90 degrees, thus locking it in place sideways. The animal’s movements in attempting to free itself would drive the point more deeply into the skin, and ensure capture. The opposite end of the pivot point was also carved into a pointed, barbed pattern, sufficient to maximize its hold. It is a brilliantly unforgiving and thoroughly effective killing device. By connecting all the composite elements of the harpoon together with a cord, the hunter rarely lost any of the pieces, furthering the idea that each part was tantamount to longevity and therefore, sacred.

One harpoon might survive for generations, supporting the life of a whole village many times over. With this in mind, it is no wonder that they were so highly decorated and prized.