Dataset of Dorset Harpoon Heads, Knife Handles, Metal blades, and Lithic Tools across the Eastern North American Arctic

Published: 28 April 2021| Version 2 | DOI: 10.17632/6c65yc5vs3.2
Patrick Jolicoeur


All objects come from Early, Middle, and Late Dorset sites in Nunavut and Labrador. This does not include material from Nunavik (Northern Quebec) or Greenland. For the harpoon heads and knife handles, all objects are bladed (as opposed to self-bladed) with complete blade slots. Metal tools are from the Franklin Pierce site on Ellesmere Island. At the time of data collection, the material sampled were housed at the Rooms Museum (St. John’s Canada), Canadian Museum of History (Gatineau, Canada), and the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre (Yellowknife, Canada). The material itself was originally excavated from a number of sites across the Canadian Arctic in Labrador and Nunavut over decades of fieldwork by numerous archaeologists. These data were collected at three museums across Canada in 2016: the Rooms Museum (St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador), the Canadian Museum of History (Gatineau, Quebec), and the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre (Yellowknife, Northwest Territories). All measurements were taken with two sets of Fisher Scientific callipers to the nearest 0.01 mm. The instruments had an error range of 0.02 mm. One set of callipers had stainless-steel measurement beds while the other was plastic. In most cases the stainless-steel set were used except when an organic object was particularly fragile and it was deemed the plastic callipers would be more appropriate. Additionally, various qualitative attributes for the artifact types were also noted in present/absent tabulations. In those cases, "y" indicates the listed attribute is present while "n" indicates it is absent. The original purpose of this dataset was to compare harpoon head and knife handle blade slot thicknesses with associated measurements on lithic and metal tools. This would create a sort of baseline to understand if any given harpoon head or knife handle might have held either a lithic or metal blade. In addition to detailed blade slot and basal thickness measurements, length, width, and thickness was measured for all objects. However, these data have many other potential uses. These data represent a relatively comprehensive collection of Dorset material culture from across Nunavut and Labrador with associated measurements for both quantitative and qualitative analysis. The large, Arctic-wide scope of this dataset potentially eliminates the need, in some cases, to identify potentially relevant artifacts by combing through site catalogues that may not be easily accessed. Researchers interested in doing qualitative or quantitative measurements for lithic or organic material culture will find these data useful. Students can also use these data for projects where having a relatively complete dataset from a variety of sites is needed. These data are particularly suited to be used on their own or as a comparative dataset to research geographic or temporal variations in material culture.


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For harpoon head blade slot thicknesses, a distal-most measurement and a proximal measurement, located 1 mm from the proximal-most portion of the slot, were recorded. Then, a medial measurement was recorded at the mid-point of those two measurements. “Blade slot thickness” refers to the linear distance between the blade beds. Other studies refer to this measurement as “width” but this is not consistent. “Blade slot length” refers to the linear distance between the proximal-most and distal-most portion of the blade slot. Harpoon heads that did not have both blade beds surviving were not included in this dataset. End-hafted handles were recorded in the same fashion as harpoon heads. The blade slots of side-hafted handles were recorded slightly differently due to the lateral portions of their blade slot not being as accessible as end-hafted handles and harpoon heads. Effectively, a proximal measurement was taken 1 mm from the proximal-most portion of the blade slot, a “distal” measurement was taken at the exact middle of the entire blade slot, and a “medial” measurement was recorded at the mid-point between those two measurements. As a result of this, side-hafted blade slot measurements are not directly comparable to harpoon head or end-hafted blade slot measurements. For endblades, thickness measurements were taken in effectively four positions. Maximum thickness was recorded on the object and three measurements were taken along the basal portion of the object where there is frequently a noticeable area of basal thinning. The proximal basal thickness measurement was located along the mid-point of the proximal edge of the tool, the distal basal thickness measurement was located at the distal-most part of noticeable basal thinning, and a medial measurement was taken at the mid-point of those two measurement locations. When no visible basal thinning was noted, the distal measurement was located at the mid-point of the artifact. “Endblade” in this regard refers to what most Arctic archaeologists would call a triangular endblade. Microblades were measured along their lateral edge as it was assumed they would be hafted into a side-hafted handle, although this is not always the case. They were frequently broken, presumably frequently on purpose, and therefore the maximum length measurement is not necessarily representative of the initial total length of the microblade when it was first made. A selection of scrapers is also included in this dataset. Along with the basic measurements, a single basal measurement was taken. This was because the basal morphology was less related to the object that it would have been hafted in than harpoon endblades. Burin-Like-Tools were also measured, following similar logic. Metal tools were recorded similarly to endblades with three basal measurements being taken. In most cases, the distal measurement represented the mid-point of the object. Please see the excel file for more information.


Archeology, Anthropology, Anthropological Archeology, Field of Archeology, Archeology of Material Culture, Arctic Region, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nunavut Territory, Material Culture