2 Architecture and Symbolism

Many anthropological studies of the built environment have explored how architecture exists as a non-verbal expression of culturally shared mental structures and processes (Lawrence and Low 1990; Rapoport 1969; 1982). This is certainly true of circumpolar architecture, as ethnographic and archaeological data indicate that houses were drenched in meaning, and existed as metaphors for both human bodies and important sea mammals. Among the Yupik of the North Pacific, the domestic dwelling symbolised a woman's womb, in which raw materials and food were transformed into finished products (Fienup-Riordan 1994). In the Yupik worldview, the entrances of houses became portals through which hunters accessed the hunted, and the living contacted the dead. Similarly in North Alaskan myths and stories, houses appear to have 'stood for' whales, and entrance passages and roof vents (kataks) were seen as transitional spaces where supernatural events frequently occurred (Lowenstein 1992; 1993).

In many cases, the ideological dimensions of these houses appear to have been tied to the use of whalebone as a construction material. This is evident in several myths that are sufficiently widespread across the Arctic to suggest that their origins lie in a common ancestral (Thule) base (Sheppard 1998). In one story, a young woman is abducted by a whale that makes a house for her out of his own bones at the bottom of the sea. In a second related story, Raven flies into the jaws of a surfacing whale. Inside he finds a brightly lit iglu where a young woman sits on a sleeping platform tending a lamp:

'The woman greets the Raven and warns him not to touch her lamp. Now and then the woman disappears and then returns. Raven asks her why she is so restless. "Life", she answers, "life and breathing". The next time the woman leaves, Raven goes out and the young woman falls dead in the iglu. In the darkness the Raven starts to suffocate and lose his feathers. The young woman was the whale's soul. She had left the iglu each time the whale breathed. The lamp was the whale's heart. Raven eventually escapes and floats with the whale and feeds on its skin. When a skin boat paddles near, Raven transforms himself into a man and cries out to the crew. "I killed the whale!" Thus, he became a great man among the people" (Lowenstein 1993, 41).

In this myth, the idea of 'house' as metaphor for 'whale' is reflected in the strong associations that exist between women, dwellings, and whaling. By taking on the personae of the whale's soul inside her house, the wife of the whaling captain (umialiq, plural umialit) played an essential role in the whale hunt. During the hunt, a woman would loosen her clothing and sit or lie motionless on the sleeping platform in the house until her husband and his crew had successfully killed a whale. Because the woman represented the whale's soul, it was believed that her inactivity made the whale easier to kill (Lantis 1938, 445-51; Lowenstein 1993, 38-55; Spencer 1959, 338). Furthermore, it was thought that the house in which she waited 'became' the whale itself, thereby playing out the myth of the Raven and the Whale in real life (Patton 1996, 125).

Specific architectural features constructed from whalebone, such as entrance passages and kataks (roof vents), were also perceived by historic North Alaskan whaling societies as having ideological significance (Lowenstein 1993, 45). In many of these stories, objects lost at sea miraculously re-appear within the passage, items thrown into the tunnel are later found inside landed whales, and drowned men are lured back from the sea bed through the houses katak (Lowenstein 1993; 143, Patton 1996, 24). The suggestion here is that entrance tunnels and kataks were transitional boundaries that separated land from sea, birth from death, and danger from safety (Lowenstein 1993, 43). It was through the entrance tunnel and katak that women, serving as spiritual midwives, enticed living harpooned whales during the spring hunt. In the process, their domestic dwellings were transformed into enlivened and animate whale-bearing iglus (Lowenstein 1993, 42). Lowenstein (1993) likens this to the practice of tupitkaq, in which Inupiat shamans would gather the parts of dead animals and birds and assemble them into fantastic creatures that were animated and sent off on missions. To the Inupiat of north Alaska, the entrance tunnels and kataks constructed from whalebone represented ready-made tupitkaq creatures that could be re-animated and used for various purposes. In one story, shamans attach two sharpened whale jaws to the katak of a house. Then, in deadly competition, two hunters leap repeatedly in and out of the dwelling until one is sliced in two (Lowenstein 1993, 43). In another, a man is tempted into a house by a woman with a toothed vagina. In order to hinder his escape, the woman causes the entrance tunnel to palpitate (Lowenstein 1993, 43).

The possibility that many of these ideological concepts may have been expressed in Thule whalebone architecture is an intriguing one, yet few archaeologists have explored this fascinating possibility. Using a sample of Thule house ruins from Somerset Island, Nunavut, Patton (1996) has searched for examples of symbolism by comparing how specific whale elements were used in the main rooms and entrance tunnels of dwellings. Results demonstrate that the entrance tunnels of certain houses made greater use of mandibles and maxillae in what appears to have been a non-utilitarian fashion. Patton has interpreted this as an archaeological expression of the whale cult in Thule society, or as a manifestation of the socioeconomic status of the occupants (Patton 1996, 103).

Patton's interpretations are based on historic accounts of entrance passages from North Alaska. Unlike the rest of the dwelling, which was built from driftwood, these architectural features were built with whalebone so that they would convey a symbolic association with the mouth of a whale. We would argue that using whalebone as a primary building material in driftwood-poor regions of the Canadian Arctic may have resulted in the expansion of this metaphor to include the entire house. Consequently, the differential representation of whalebone in entrance passages versus main rooms might not be telling the whole story. Instead, symbols may have been expressed in ways that were less obvious and perhaps lay hidden within the roof frame itself. For example, the excavation of a ceremonial structure called a karigi (plural karyit) from the north Alaskan site of Utqiagvik revealed that a number of unique ritual items had been deliberately placed in locations which, following the completion of the karigi, would not have been visible to the occupants (Sheehan 1997, 149-53). These items included bird wings, a baleen toboggan, bowhead whale cervical and caudal vertebrae, and composite animals (walrus and bear limbs arranged into a single animal). Sheehan points out that from an occupant's perspective, these buried features were intertwined and hidden within the buildings visible parts (Sheehan 1997, 150). This suggests that some ideological concepts may not have been overtly expressed in Thule whalebone architecture. Instead, their presence and meanings may have been hidden and only selectively revealed to inhabitants. We were interested in exploring the possibility that this might have been achieved through the manipulation and control of sensory information.


© Internet Archaeology/Author(s)
University of York legal statements | Terms and Conditions | File last updated: Wed Sept 27 2005