Patton, A. Katherine and James M. Savelle (2006) The symbolic dimensions of whale bone use in Thule winter dwellings, Études/Inuit/Studies 30(2): 137-161

Keywords: architecture and designgenderInupiatNunavutprehistoryThule Inuit

This article examines the ideological significance of whale bone architecture in prehistoric Thule society throughout the Arctic. The authors draw on previous archaeological fieldwork by Savelle on Thule winter dwellings in Nunavut to examine the spatial patterning of bowhead whale bones. Utilizing ethnographic studies of Inuit and Inupiat culture to establish a contextual background, the authors suggest that the distribution of whale bones in Thule site dwellings indicate a social and symbolic principle.

Patton and Savelle explore both Alaskan Inupiat and Canadian Inuit symbolism of whale bone winter houses due to their common Thule ancestry. (p. 144). They explain how both Inupiat and Inuit built qargit, semi-subterranean ceremonial houses that used “bowhead whale mandibles, ribs, vertebrae, scapulae, and crania” (p. 141) in the entrance tunnels to symbolize the whale’s mouth (p. 143). The main room of the qargit had a wooden frame or bone frame to represent the whale’s body, serving as the location for communal ritual activities (p. 143).

The authors further explain how traditional Inuit domestic dwellings were the domain of the woman, especially the kitchen and food storage areas (p.145) According to oral traditions, women in the home were the soul of the whale and the oil lantern they were responsible for symbolized the whale’s heart (p. 143).

Drawing on studies by Dawson and Whitridge, the authors suggest that variability in materials for Arctic dwelling construction was influenced by the socio-economic status of the family (p. 138). Successful whaling families would have greater access to bowhead whale bones and therefore, their homes could more directly reflect the cosmological beliefs of the group (p. 138)