1 Introduction

Historically known whaling societies of the northern Alaskan coast are the direct descendents of an earlier archaeological tradition known as Thule. The origins of this tradition lie in past cultures of the Bering Strait Region, and by the late 12th or early 13th century Thule groups had expanded eastward into the Canadian Arctic (McCullough 1989, 300 and Mathiassen 1927). Unlike northwestern Alaska, the coastlines of the eastern Canadian Arctic were largely devoid of driftwood. Consequently, the main rooms, kitchen areas, and entrance tunnels of Thule winter houses had to be enclosed using a framework of whalebones acquired through the hunting of large baleen whales. Attendant with the development of organised whaling at c. 1200-700 BP was the creation of an elaborate ceremonial complex associated with the whale hunt (Savelle 2002, 363). The ritualised nature of whaling, coupled with the fact that many North Alaskan myths and legends use houses as metaphors for whales, suggests that whalebone in Thule architecture may have been symbolically resonant (Lowenstein 1993; Mathiassen 1927; McCartney 1980). However, most archaeological research has focused on assessing the economic importance of whalebone (McCartney and Savelle 1993; Savelle and McCartney 1994), and defining its usefulness as an indicator of socio-economic status (Dawson 2001; Savelle 2002; Savelle and McCartney 2002; Whitridge 1999). Few studies have examined the symbolic usage of whalebone in an archaeological context.

Humans tend to experience the world through different senses, and several recent studies have attempted to contextualise artefacts and cultural features by placing them into different sensory frameworks. In some cases, the aim has been to understand how visual perception, when altered by neurocognitive factors (Lewis-Williams 2001) or by orientations which alter line-of-sight and field-of-view (Wheatley and Gillings 2002), affect how landscapes and cultural features were experienced by past human societies. In other cases, the objective has been to examine how dwellings, monuments, and sites may have acquired meaning through the properties of sound (Dams 1984; Devereux 1996; Goldhahn 2002; Watson 2001, 182). There is even evidence that ritual specialists were able to manipulate the sensory experiences of others through the controlled use of space, light, and sound Watson (2001, 182). If aspects of whaling-related ritual were similarly communicated through the manipulation and control of sensory experiences, then a sensual approach to Thule architecture might provide a means of exploring the symbolic usage of whalebone.

Computer modelling provides a new and innovative way of exploring the roles played by human senses in the past. Artefacts and buildings can now be realistically reconstructed from archaeological data using laser scanners and personal computers. By placing these models into virtual environments, walk-throughs and fly-bys can be used by the researcher to visualise archaeological data from different vantage points. Techniques such as ray-tracing and radiosity can also be incorporated to examine how the distribution of light, shadow and smoke can alter the appearance of interior spaces within buildings.

The project upon which this paper is based uses archaeological data and laser scanning technology to reconstruct an accurate model of a Thule whalebone house from the Canadian High Arctic. The resulting model is then used as a sort of 'virtual test lab' for examining how aspects of whaling-related ritual may have been expressed in the architecture of these houses. We conclude that the whalebone superstructure was designed to evoke important themes when viewed from specific locations within the house, and under different lighting conditions. These themes, which appear in Inupiat myths and stories, involve the belief that women transformed their houses into living whales during the time of the hunt.


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