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Monday, September 19, 2016

Harvey Golden's Magnificent Kayak Surveys


My usual approach to using reading material for this blog is to take some interesting (to me) facts that I read concerning some kind of boat, or some culture's use of boats, and condense, paraphrase, or synthesize the source into an article, hopefully for the benefit or entertainment of my readers. Sometimes I rely entirely on a single source; at others, I'll do a little more digging into the subject and put together what amounts to an essay on the subject.

This time, the books themselves are the subject, because Harvey Golden's Kayaks of Alaska (2015) and Kayaks of Greenland: The History and Development of the Greenlandic Hunting Kayak, 1600-2000 (2006) are huge, valuable, awesomely impressive, and worthy of an article about themselves. When I opened the mailing package that contained them, I was, without exaggeration, awestruck by the enormous quantity of sheer fact they contain and the clarity of its presentation. Having lived with them for a few months now, my opinion has not diminished a bit.

Golden is an independent researcher in the field of museum studies. He has examined and surveyed almost every historically significant kayak held in museum collections and many private collections in Europe and North America, taking off lines, photographing and sketching the most minute and intricate details, and delving into the collections' documentation and the historical, popular, and academic writings of others. When personally surveying an artifact, no detail seems to escape his notice. If a deck line had once been present on a kayak but was later removed, perhaps 200 years ago, Golden is certain to have detected it by the presence of a tiny nub of a thong cut off close to the deck. 

Kayaks of Alaska and Kayaks of Greenland divide the boats surveyed by geographic and cultural ranges, each associated with different boat types. In the Greenland book, Golden creates a typology of eight types, although the distinctions between the types are sometimes difficult to see. Certainly, the kayaks of Greenland are more similar to one another than the kayaks of Alaska, where the differences between nine regional types Golden describes are in some cases really dramatic. Hereafter, we'll focus on the more recent Kayaks of Alaska. Kayaks of Greenland is similar in most respects.

A kayak from Point Barrow, from Kayaks of Alaska
A kayak from Point Barrow, from Kayaks of Alaska (Click any image to enlarge.)
Kayaks of Alaska begins with a short chapter of history. This is followed by nine chapters on the kayaks of different regions -- said regions defined by cultural borders and the distinct types of kayaks used within them (e.g., Unangan, Central Yup'ik, Southern Inupiaq, etc.). These nine sections, therefore, constitute a typology of Alaskan kayaks, one which Golden has developed as an expansion on the thinking of kayak scholars before him.

Lines of a North Alaska kayak in the Burke Museum, Seattle, from Kayaks of Alaska
Lines of a North Alaska kayak in the Burke Museum, Seattle, from Kayaks of Alaska
Each chapter on a kayak type begins with a more detailed history of the kayaks themselves and of the history and scholarship concerning those kayaks, illustrated with drawings and photographs from historical and academic sources as well as Golden's own illustrations. The type is clearly and exhaustively defined and variations are discussed. This is followed by a series of plates of lines and construction drawings of several artefactual kayaks of the type, the plates being followed by a section containing detailed descriptions of each one. These descriptions discuss the artifact's provenance, its condition, and construction and decorative details; compare and contrast it to others of the same type; and in some cases discuss the construction of recent replicas and their performance. (Golden has built several, which he maintains in his own museum, the Lincoln Street Kayak & Canoe Museum in Portland, OR.)

Construction plan of a North Alaska Kayak at the Center for Wooden Boats, Seattle, from Kayaks of Alaska
Construction plan of a North Alaska Kayak at the Center for Wooden Boats, Seattle, from Kayaks of Alaska
Golden produces his lines drawings by hand, and they are admirably clean and detailed. In several instances where the kayak has been damaged by accident or deformed by inadequate support over the years, he reproduces the lines "as surveyed," and beside them shows lines for a likely "as-built" reconstruction based on the scantlings of the boat and on the form of other kayaks of the same type. In cases where good lines drawings were already made by others, he reproduces these instead. 
Interior construction details of an Alaskan kayak, from Kayaks of Alaska
Interior construction details of an Alaskan kayak, from Kayaks of Alaska
In addition to standard waterline, sheer plan, and section lines, several of the kayaks are presented in a three-quarters view that gives one an excellent feel for the shape that standard views sometimes fail to impart. He also includes sketches of numerous construction and decorative details, deck fittings, and deck equipment associated with the boat in question.

Kayak builders, from Kayaks of Alaska
Kayak builders, from Kayaks of Alaska
Chapters on kayak construction, equipment, and paddles follow the chapters on kayak types. The chapter on construction is not a "how-to," however: it will tell you little or nothing about how to select lumber, cut a mortise, or steam-bend a rib. Rather, it addresses the construction details that are common to many or all of the boats, right down to details such as knots and lashing patterns for the joints between longitudinal and transverse structural members. (Deviations from common construction methods are covered in minute detail in the descriptions of the individual artifacts that follow the plates in each "type" chapter.) If you want to build one of the boats in this book and lack knowledge of skin-on-frame construction methods, I recommend The Aleutian Kayak by Wolfgang Brinck and Building the Greenland Kayak by Christopher Cunningham (neither of which, I believe, are in print). For would-be builders who do possess building skills, Kayaks of Alaska and Kayaks of Greenland contain the necessary lines and construction details, but not tables of offsets, from which accurate reproductions can be built. (Golden provides instructions for lifting offsets from the plans on his website.)

A charming bonus in Kayaks of Alaska is a section of color plates containing reproductions of Golden's hand-drawn depictions of colored decorative details on many of the kayaks and paddles. Aside from this, all illustrations in both books are in black and white.

These are big, heavy books, each 8.5" x 11" and over 500 pages. As self-published projects, they are extraordinary for the quality of their production, but this is almost trivial compared to the quality and value of their contents. They are not books that many will sit down and read cover-to-cover, for the descriptions of thousands of details on dozens of kayaks do not make for an engaging narrative. But one can dip into them at any point and learn something about kayak history or about a particular design, and as reference sources, they are incomparable in their clear and comprehensive coverage of their subjects.

In the immense contribution they make to the study of indigenous watercraft, Golden's books stand as equals to Adney and Chapelle's The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America and Haddon and Hornell's Canoes of OceaniaKayaks of Alaska and Kayaks of Greenland are magnificent achievements. 

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Visit Harvey Golden's website to purchase Kayaks of Alaska and Kayaks of Greenland. IndigenousBoats.com has no business affiliation with Harvey Golden, and we make no commissions on sales of his books. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Asmat Spirit Canoe

Our previous post featured a large dugout canoe from New Guinea's Asmat culture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That one was ceremonial but functional. Beside it in the same exhibit was another Asmat canoe that was purely symbolic and religious in function. We'll quote the display card in full:
"Asmat spirit canoes (wuramon) are ceremonial carvings in the form of supernatural vessels. Wuramon are created for a one-time use during emak cem (the bone house feast), a ceremony that celebrates the spirits of the recently dead and the initiation of young boys. After being secluded within a ritual house for several months, the boys emerge one by one and crawl across the wuramon on their bellies. As each crosses the vessel, he is transformed from a boy into a man. Once across, he is seized by a man who cuts designs into his body; these heal into permanent scarification patterns that mark him as an adult. 
"Crewed by spirits, the wuramon has no bottom to its hull, as spirits do not require a complete hull for their journey. The spirit figures have a dual nature: their outer forms portray supernatural creatures, but each is named for a specific recently deceased ancestor, whose spirit it embodies. A turtle (mbu), a fertility symbol because of the numerous eggs it lays, appears near the center of this wuramon. Behind it is an okom, a dangerous Z-shaped water spirit. The other figures, gazing down through the bottomless hull, represent menacing water spirits (ambirak) or human-like spirits (etsjo). A hammerhead shark is depicted on the prow."
Asmat spirit canoe (wuramon)  at Metropolitan Museum of Art
Asmat spirit canoe (wuramon), with hammerhead shark figure at the bow (left). Click any image to enlarge.
Asmat spirit canoe (wuramon)  at Metropolitan Museum of Art
Asmat spirit canoe (wuramon)  at Metropolitan Museum of Art. The spirit figures are lashed to the gunwales.
Spirit figures looking down through bottom of hull on Asmat spirit canoe
Spirit figures looking down through bottom of hull. The gunwale displays a fine pattern on the outer surface.
Asmat spirit canoe (wuramon)  at Metropolitan Museum of Art
Spirit figures at stern 
Turtle spirit figure on Asmat spirit canoe
The turtle spirit figure symbolizes fertility. Behind it is an okom, "a dangerous Z-shaped water spirit."
Spirit figures at on Asmat spirit canoe
More spirit figures looking through the bottom of the hull. Behind the spirit canoe is the large dugout canoe featured in the previous post. Note the fine decorative carving on the gunwale, similar to that on the wuramon. 
Asmat spirit canoe at the Met
Shadow on the floor shows the bottomless nature of the spirit canoe's hull

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Asmat Dugout Canoe at the Met

In December I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and saw a wonderful display of art and crafts from New Guinea. We'll quote the display card in full for the nearly 50-foot-long dugout canoe shown in the following photos:

"The homeland of the Asmat people of southwest New Guinea consists mainly of densely forested swamps drained by numerous large and small rivers. Canoes are essential to life int he Asmat region, providing the only means of transportation for fishing and food-gathering expeditions, visiting neighboring communities, and, in the past, for embarking on headhunting raids. When paddling the canoes, the paddlers stand erect, skillfully maintaining their balance as they dip the blades in the water
"All large Asmat canoes have carved prows, and those of large communal canoes, such as the present one, are especially ornate, adorned with images of ancestors and headhunting symbols. Nearly fifty feet long and capable of carrying twenty people, this canoe was carved by the master woodcarver Chin
asapitch of Per village, assisted by other men. The seated figure on the prow depicts his deceased sister Banditis, while the reclining figure represents a young man who had recently been killed by members of an enemy village."
Asmat (New Guinea) dugout canoe
Asmat (New Guinea) dugout canoe, bow at left; with paddles. The hull is very round-bodied. The vertical stripes appear to be applied color, not a natural feature of the wood. (Click any image to enlarge.)
Bow carvings, Asmat dugout canoe
Bow carvings depicting two deceased people from the canoe maker's village
Asmat canoe from the bow, with paddles
Asmat canoe from the bow. Paddles leaning on both sides have very long shafts without end grips. The blades, which are lashed with fiber (presumably vegetable) to the shafts, are rounded at the bottom and square-shouldered at the top.
Asmat dugout canoe, from the stern
Asmat dugout canoe, from the stern

Asmat dugout canoe, from the stern
Another view from the stern.

Asmat men paddling a dugout canoe, standing
A photo accompanying the Asmat exhibit canoe shows the vigorous standing paddling method used. (Please excuse the poor quality of this photo-of-a-photo.)
Below, is an image from Wikipedia's article on the Asmat people, showing the prevalence of dugout canoes in the culture in 1912 or 1913.
Asmat people with dugout canoes
Asmat men and boys in dugout canoes, 1912 or 1913.
(Source: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)