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The Tara Harpoon: Eskimoes in the Irish Sea? November 9, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Medieval , trackback

***Dedicated to SD***

Time for a wrong place artefact that has been all but forgotten: the Tara Eskimo Harpoon. An Eskimo Harpoon in Tara? what is ‘wrong’ with that? Well, Tara is in County Down in Northern Ireland and the TEH was found at Millin Bay there in 1927 and was brought along to a bemused archaeologist 1927-1940. The second date is annoyingly unclear, but hey what is a decade among friends? After all the thing had actually been made and used all of seven or eight hundred years earlier. The TEH is a, much abraised ‘Thule’ harpoon such as those being employed by native Americans in the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth century in the western Atlantic and it turned up a long way from home. Broadly speaking there are three possible explanations.

1) Fake. An Irish man or woman, presumably the finder, Mr Hugh Conway of Derry Farm, Portaferry or someone who knew his beachcombing habits very well planted this.

2) Animal transmission. The harpoon ended in a seal or a walrus or a whale that then swam across the northern Atlantic, shedding the TEH close enough for it to wash ashore.

3) Human transmission. An ‘Eskimo’ either came fishing a long way from home or some intermediary group brought the thing over, instead.

Let’s take these on by one.

It was a fake.

If this was a normal Fortean piece Beach would say that Hugh Conway was an honest man, that there was nothing in it for him, that he treated his neighbour’s dog right, that he dressed in orange and defended the Glorious Revolution or wore green on St Patrick’s day. But Beach is not going to pull that nonsense on you. After all, we live in a world where those sweet girls Frances and Elsie LIED about the Cottingley fairies and in which, curse them, the feral kids in this village periodically ring doorbells for no reason at about midnight.

It was the seal that did it.

Beach personally prefers this hypothesis because it is ingenious and because it is one in the eye for those who love their history buttered with the improbable. But the bad news is that rather few Greenland seals end up in Irish waters and relatively few Irish seals that end up near Greenland with a harpoon in them make it back. Sorry, then Harpooned Sammy, back in the waves…

It was the Inuit/Viking/Bishop of Derry.

It is worth stating that this is an eye-brow raising rather than an eye-popping find. And what is the difference? There is no need to shred our textbooks over this one. The Vikings/Norse were, without any question, in contact with indigenous people in North America and Greenland from the tenth century. Somewhere along the line a Viking and an Inuit woman had a child together. Through trade or war the harpoon could have been picked up and travelled west. There are also some extraordinary allegations about Inuit canoes getting blown badly off course: another post another day…

Any preference among readers? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


13 Nov 2012:

Several readers wrote in (thanks!) to point out that Tara is in the south and not in the County Down. Beach was confused too but actually there is a second Tara in the County Down. Now to business: Stephen D writes in: Re the Down Harpoon: Hypothesis 2 seems perhaps a little stronger than you make out. Consider the bowhead whales, circumpolar Arctic species, shorter than blue whale but as heavy (big ones over 100 tons). Very long-lived: see JC George et al. (2011) A new way to estimate the age of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) using ovarian corpora counts. Canadian Journal of Zoology 89: 840-852. Quote: “Counts of ovarian corpora were obtained from 50 mature females. Corpora and baleen data were used with aspartic acid racemization (AAR) data to obtain estimated age at sexual maturity (ASM) at 26 years. The number of corpora counted in both ovaries (or estimated when only one ovary was counted) was used with ASM and estimated ovulation rate (OR) to obtain corpora age estimates ranging from 26 to 149 years. A stone harpoon tip recovered from whale 92B2 was consistent with her corpora age of 133 years.” It’s the last bit that’s significant. The blubber on these whales is very thick, and harpoon points may lodge in it and be carried around for over a century. To quote: “1997 Native Subsistence whalers from Wainwright land a whale with an ancient harpoon tip made from slate embedded in its blubber. Such documented recoveries began in 1981 and continued to this year with harpoon heads made of metal and ivory, jade and slate being recovered. The recovered slate harpoon tip from the Wainwright whale is estimated to have been made around 1860-1890, putting the age of the Wainwright whale possibly over 137 years. The harpoon point that was recovered is of the style used by Native people as far south as Little Diomede Island. Siberian hunters may have been using similar metal and ivory points into the 1960′s.” Now, wandering bowheads stick to the Arctic: we can always of course hypothesise an aberrant one in the Little Ice Age (bering a harpoon from previous centuries) reaching Ireland. Also,  there is a slightly smaller, related species, the Atlantic right whale, of which a few still survive in the northwest, ranging up to Nova Scotia in summer: the eastern right whale has been hunted to extinction. Some of the westerly population occasionally wander eastwards, to Iceland, Norway, Ireland, Spain. They could have carried harpoons with them, more easily than any seal. Snag: this range doesn’t really overlap with the Thule culture, but how sure are you that the harpoon is Thule?’ CvanC writes in to note. ‘Reminded me of this: “Marischal Museum has over one hundred Inuit objects, coming from many different collectors. These range from arrowheads to toys, furs and carvings. This kayak was found off the coast at Belhelvie, Aberdeenshire c. 1720 with an Inuit man aboard, who died shortly afterwards.”  We need a list of all the alleged Amerindian boats that turn up in Europe as there are a lot! AGib also wrote on describing a similar incident. GT writes, meanwhile, ‘How about a fourth possibility, it was lost on the ice and brought to the Irish shore on a grounded iceberg? Thanks All!