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Wooden gifts from the sea

By Tim Rast & Christopher B. Wolff

More than 1,000 years ago, the sounds of drums could be heard thrumming across the Arctic. Although these drums were related to the large wood and skin-covered drums found throughout the region today, they were smaller and played by a very different group of people. We don’t know what they called themselves, as they vanished about the same time that the ancestors of the Inuit moved into the region within the last millennia, but in Inuktitut they are known as the Tuniit and archaeologists call them the Late Dorset. Everything we know about them comes from archaeological sites and stories of contact told by Inuit.

The two most complete Late Dorset drum frames ever found come from Button Point on the southeast corner of Bylot Island, Nunavut, and date to the centuries surrounding A.D. 1000. The wooden drums were salvaged decades ago by Father Guy Mary-Rousselière, along with thousands of other Late Dorset artifacts now housed in the Canadian Museum of History (CMH). Unfortunately, the drum skins and lashing decomposed long before they were found, but the frame and handles of the two complete drums are intact. The authors and Lori White re-examined the Button Point wood fragments and, using the two complete drums as a reference, recorded more than a dozen new and previously identified drum frame fragments. These pieces represent instruments in a range of sizes, but with a consistent and uniquely Late Dorset style. The two complete drums have relatively small diameters compared to many other documented Arctic drum styles, with diameters of a little over 17 cm and just under 15 cm. The frame of the smaller of the two drums has unrolled slightly so the diameter is an estimate.

Feature_TuniitDrums_2Both drum frames are made from a single piece of wood that has been bent into a loop. The wood grain of the drums suggests that they are made from large diameter driftwood logs, perhaps spruce or larch, rather than the Arctic willow that grows locally. The wood is a gift from the sea and at Button Point many of the most intricate and ornate artifacts were crafted from it. Each end of the loop was carved to a long, slanting scarf joint that was further notched so that it could be bound firmly in place using lashing. Both drums have an incised groove running around the outside circumference of the frame to tie down the drum skin.

The drum handles are very slight wooden sticks with square or rectangular crosssections. The handles are inserted through matching gouged slots in the wood frame. No trace of lashing grooves or glue on the handle or frame suggests that the handles were attached by any means other than friction. It is possible that the handles are designed to be removed to make the drums easier to store or transport between use.

There are additional holes gouged into the drum frame, not drilled as you see among Inuit specimens. In each drum, one hole is placed directly opposite the drum handle. The larger drum has a second hole in the same general area of the frame, but offset slightly. We aren’t certain what the function of these holes might be. Generally, they appear opposite the drum handle, but are a smaller diameter than the drum handle, so if a stick of some sort fits in them, they would be smaller than the already very light handles. They don’t have any obvious grooves or channels running from them that suggest they were lashing points for threads or cords.

We searched through all of the wood fragments in the Button Point collection at the CMH and identified a total of 13 drum fragments in addition to the two complete drums. Many of these were previously identified as drum parts, but we did find a few new ones. Even very short drum frame fragments could be identified based on the carefully constructed cross section of the frame. In cross section, the wood fragments are rectangular with a flat base opposite a peaked and bevelled edge. They have a flat interior surface and their exterior surface is incised with a lashing groove around the entire circumference of the frame. Since the drum handles on the complete drums are very simple sticks, we weren’t able to identify any of the other wood fragments as handles. The drum frame fragments showed some variability in size, but no matter how slight or hefty the frame, the unique cross-section was present, so it appears that relatively large and small drums did not differ significantly in construction methods, only in size.

To hear what they may have sounded like when they were played, Rast made reproductions of the drums. Making a reproduction of an object using the same materials and techniques available to the original builders is one way to better understand the ancient craft of drum making among the Late Dorset. The drum reproductions were skinned with caribou rawhide, which were lashed to the frames with braided sinew. During Rast’s initial detailed examination of the original drums to aid in building their duplicates, an exciting discovery was made. The drums were adorned with incised lines forming a sequence that appears to count up and down as you follow them around the drum frame.

On the larger drum, there are 13 sets of tick marks incised into the drum frame. They are spaced evenly around the circular frame like the numbers on a clock. The pattern is not random; instead it counts up and down from the handle towards the top of the drum, where two sets of eight tick marks are carved with a central line running through, identical to the pattern seen on Dorset carvings of animals to suggest the spinal column or backbone of the animal.

The pattern appears to be mirrored on the left and right side of the drum. Starting at the frame just above the handle, there are three tick marks and if you go clockwise or counter clockwise, the next mark is a single tick mark, then a gap and two tick marks, a gap and three tick marks, a gap and four tick marks (probably), a gap and six tick marks, a gap and eight tick marks (with a spinal column) and then the pattern counts down again, eight ticks with a spinal column, six ticks, four ticks (probably), three ticks, two ticks, one tick, and then you are back at the handle. The point where four tick marks may be located is damaged on one side of the drum and overlaps the scarf joint on the opposite edge. At least three tick marks can be seen in the damaged area. If you continue counting the marks by one from the handle, the sequence is 1, 2, 3, and then 4. If you count the marks down from the top of the frame by two, the pattern is 8, 6, and then 4. Both sequences suggest that 4 is a plausible number to fill in the sequence at that point. On the smaller drum, we observed a similar ascending/descending sequence of seven marks.

One of two life-size masks carved from driftwood. Trees this size do not grow on Baffin Island, instead it was foraged along beaches: a gift from the sea. Photo by Christopher B Wolff. Canadian Museum of History, PfFm-01:1772-1777
One of two life-size masks carved from driftwood. Trees this size do not grow on Baffin Island, instead it was foraged along beaches: a gift from the sea.
Photo by Christopher B Wolff. Canadian Museum of History, PfFm-01:1772-1777

We viewed all of the Inuit drums in the Ethnographic collection at the Canadian Museum of History. We did not measure every drum and instead focused on the general similarities and differences in their design and construction. After viewing both the archaeological and ethnographic collections, we could see that the drums were clearly related, but they developed independently along diverging paths.

The similarities between the ethnographic and Dorset drums included the use of bent wood for the frame, the general circular shape of the drum frame, a single offset handle, the groove in the outside of the drum frame to lash the skin in place, and the use of scarf joints to secure the ends of the frame together.

The differences were in the specifics of design and construction of each of these elements.

Drums have been a central component of northern shamanic traditions for centuries. In Canada’s Arctic, artifacts belonging to the Dorset culture, especially the carvings and other artistic pieces left by the Late Dorset culture, are often interpreted as holding important clues to the shamanistic nature of the society.

One of the most common design elements that appears in Dorset art is the incised representation of a skeleton, which archaeologists call the x-ray skeletal motif. These skeletal motifs, sometimes reduced to an abstract representation of the spinal column, are found on naturalistic animal carvings, but also on abstract carvings and other objects. One theory is that these carvings were religious or shamanistic in nature and some of the figures suggest that humans, most likely shamans, could even transform themselves into animals. There are several examples of figures in Dorset art that depict people transforming into animals. One explanation put forth for the skeletal motif and depictions of transformation is that in some northern cultures shamans could enter a trance-like state, strip off their own skin down to their skeleton, and then redress themselves in the skin of the animal that they want to change into. We know by analogy with later Inuit groups and other shamanic cultures that rhythmic drumming and chanting can be used to induce a trance-like state. Dorset drums could have filled a similar role.

The incised lines on the back of the Button Point drums may represent stages in the development of the spinal columns seen in the x-ray skeletal motif found on other Dorset objects. The patterns of marks on each complete drum frame are different, but they both create a sequence that counts up from the handle (marked with three lines) around the edge of the frame towards the far side of the drum marked by a skeletal motif. And then back down again.

How can we interpret this sequence? One literal interpretation could be to interpret the markings musically, either as marking out drumbeats or a cycle of songs played during a ceremony. Alternatively, within the context of shamanism, the marks could mark out a progression from a normal state of being to a trance-like state where the shaman or his audience is transported or transformed. The three marks on the frame are placed at the point where the drummer makes contact with the instrument.

This tiny Late Dorset carving shows a being, perhaps a shaman, with human legs and parka twisting and changing into a polar bear. Photo by the McDougall Sound Archaeological Research Project. Courtesy of the Government of Nunavut.
This tiny Late Dorset carving shows a being, perhaps a shaman,
with human legs and parka twisting and changing into a polar bear.
Photo by the McDougall Sound Archaeological Research Project.
Courtesy of the Government of Nunavut.

On wooden facemasks recovered from the same site at Button Point, there are sets of three incised lines where the strap to hold the mask in place would have been attached. The three parallel lines seem to be associated with the point of contact with the religious object and the practitioner.

At the far end of the drum, away from the handle, we see the skeletal motif, marking that moment of transformation or spiritual travel to another plane. And in between we have a sequence counting up from a normal state of being to the moment of transformation and then back down again to the human realm.

What appear to be simple instruments at first glance become loaded with religious symbolism on closer reflection. Within the context of a shamanistic society, the markings take on a transformative meaning and even the simple driftwood that they are constructed from, a gift foraged from the sea, takes on religious significance beyond a simple building material.

Tim Rast, from St. John’s, Newfoundland, is a Canadian archaeologist and Flintknapper who specializes in artifact reproductions from the Arctic and sub arctic. You can see more of his work on his blog: www.elfshotgallery.blogspot.com

Christopher B. Wolff is an archaeologist and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the State University of New York, Plattsburgh. His work focuses on prehistoric coastal societies throughout the Arctic and Sub arctic. He has been a drummer since he was 10 years old.