Three ivory harpoons

Inuit, 18th century AD
From Hudson Strait, North America

For hunting seal and walrus

The smaller harpoon head in the centre would have been used for hunting ringed seal, while the larger examples would have been suitable for bearded seal and walrus. The metal for the rivetted blades would have been obtained from fur traders or whalers.

They form part of the first collection of Inuit artefacts known to have been collected in Canada, by Alexander Light, shipwright with the Hudson's Bay Company, in 1738, in Hudson Strait between Québec and Baffin Island. Light sent the collection to Sir Hans Sloane in London. In the letter accompanying the objects, he noted that one of the harpoons (here, the left-hand one) was covered with a sheath, for fear of 'Cutting holes in thayr Cannos' (i.e. kayaks).

Such harpoons are still in use to-day. Floats, launched at the end of the harpoons are attached to wounded or dead sea mammals after being shot to prevent them sinking. When the line is pulled tight the harpoon-head swivels through ninety degrees so that the line holds as the hunter hauls in the prey. Because they are buried in the animal the harpoons avoided being damaged on rough sea ice.

This harpoon type may have been invented in the Bering Strait region, 2000 years ago, and spread westward with successive movements of sea mammal hunters over 1000 years ago.

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More information


J.C.H. King, First peoples, first contacts: (London, The British Museum Press, 1999)


Length: 18.000 cm (longest)

Museum number

AOA SL 1933.8;AOA SL 1933.15;AOA SL 1933.18


Collected by Alexander Light


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