Whale Bone Houses - Thule Culture Ceremonial Structures

Honoring the Hunted Whale in Structures

Inuit Semi-Subterranean Dwelling with Bowhead Whale Bone in Radstock Bay, Nunavut, Canada
Inuit Semi-Subterranean Dwelling with Bowhead Whale Bone in Radstock Bay, Nunavut, Canada. Andrew Peacock / Getty Images

When the great shift in population throughout the American arctic region from Alaska to Greenland occurred with the Thule migration beginning about 1200 AD, the largest change was arguably a shift from broad spectrum hunting of terrestrial and marine mammals to one focused primarily on hunting whales. One comparatively rare but important type of structure used by Thule whale hunters was the whale bone house.

Although whale bone houses most frequently occurred on Neo-Eskimo Thule culture sites, there are some examples that are older Paleo-Eskimo in date.

Whale bone houses are typically interpreted as chief's residences or ceremonial houses, based primarily on the sheer number of sea mammals required to create one. Whale bone used included mandibles and maxillae, ribs and scapulae, all lashed to create major supports. The domed roofs could take up to 20 mandibles, or roughly 15-20 whales per house, although it didn't need that many if you made it a flat roof rather than a domed one. If the roof was dome-shaped, the rafters of whale jaws and ribs were set into the stones of the outer wall and tied together at the top. The entire frame was covered with skins, and then with a thick layer of turf and moss was laid on top, and the entire building finally banked with snow.

However, there was considerable variation.

Experimental archaeologist Moreau Sanford Maxwell built one almost exclusively from ribs, and a computer reconstruction of a Thule whalebone house was published in 2006 (Levy and Dawson). Because whale bone remains useful for tools for decades if not years after the animal's death, it is likely that materials were mined from whalebone houses.

Whale Bone Ceremonial House

A fine-grained study of the construction of a whale bone house is one excavated by Savelle and Habu and reported in 2004.

The house was located at the PaJs-13 site on Somerset Island, in Nunavut province, Canada. PaJs-13 was a Neo-Eskimo Thule village that also included 12 non-whale bone semi-subterranean houses, some of which were excavated in 1991. The village is interpreted as a year-round occupation dated between the 13th and 15th centuries AD, by Thule people who were practicing an overall whale-based economy. Calibrated radiocarbon dates on caribou antler range between 1190-1450 cal AD.

The Nunavut Whale Bone House had a circular 4 meter meter (13 foot) diameter floor of neatly flagged limestone and dolomite slabs, with an opening or "well" in the center. There were no sleeping platforms, but there were seating benches adjacent to the inner wall. Manufacturing debris inside the house indicated that stone tool making was the primary occupation of the people who were used the house.

The house was made by creating a low gravel platform, which was covered with a bed of baleen whale grease for insulation. The flagstone floor was laid on top and a shallow entrance was excavated.

Sod walls consisting of cut turfs were bolstered with articulated whale vertebrae. The framework was erected of whale mandibles positioned vertically and canted inward, and crania placed vertically on the upper part of the sod wall. A total of 22 mandibles, 25 maxillae and premaxilae and seven crania were used in the construction of the house. At the entrance was a set of six whale crania and the interior benches were built of stone and whale bone.

Other Examples

Two other examples were excavated in the western Aleutian islands and reported in 2011 by Corbett. Corbett interpreted both houses as functionally different than other houses, based on the substantial whalebone components, the larger size and the substantial cache of artifacts and burials associated with the structures compared to other non-whale bone residential houses.

The oldest of the two chief's house was on Attu Island, a rectangular structure measuring 10x5 m (33x16.5 ft). It included five whale skulls, four of which might have been placed on the roof, and a fifth which was buried partly in the floor. All were of different species. Calibrated radiocarbon dates on charcoal ranged between AD 95 and 520, making this example a Paleo-Eskimo site. The foundation of this house was made of a great mass of whalebone, withe large boulders marking the exterior edges, and a large wooden post supporting the roof.

A second chief's house excavated by Corbett at Buldir in the Aleutians was dated between 1410-1880 cal AD. This semi-subterranean house was excavated into the earth a total of 1.3 m (4.3 ft) deep; and the pit measured 1.5 m (4.9 ft) in diameter. The house floor was lined with a thick mat of grass and a sea lion hide. Sea lion scapulae lined the interior of the pit, and a large fin or blue whale skull was buried beneath the floor. The walls were entirely built of whale ribs and mandibles.

Sources

This article is a part of the About.com guide to the American Arctic, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Corbett DG. 2011. Two Chiefs’ Houses from the Western Aleutian Islands. Arctic Anthropology 48(2):3-16.

Dawson PC. 2001. Interpreting Variability in Thule Inuit Architecture: A Case Study from the Canadian High Arctic. American Antiquity 66(3):453-470.

Levy R, and Dawson P. 2006. Reconstructing a thule whalebone house using 3D imaging. IEEE Multimedia 13(2):78-83. doi: 10.1109/mmul.2006.41

Savelle J, and Habu J. 2004. A Processual Investigation of a Thule Whale Bone House, Somerset Island, Arctic Canada. Arctic Anthropology 41(2):204-221. doi: 10.1353/arc.2011.0033