5.3 View 3: the effect of light on the perception of whalebone architecture

Light is an important component of how environments are perceived by their occupants. Different lighting arrangements have been found to affect the performance of tasks, as well as create impressions of interior spaciousness, privacy, relaxation, and order (Manav and Yener 1998, 45). The stone lamps used by many Inuit and Eskimo groups literally 'created' culture by transforming raw into cooked, dark into light, and cold into heat (Lee and Reinhardt 2003, 20). Typically, lamps were shallow in depth and semi-lunar in shape, and were given to a young woman following marriage. In order to operate the lamp, a woman tilted it slightly forward and placed a lump of solid blubber either on the opposite edge, or suspended it above the lamp. Liquified oil from the pounded blubber fuelled a wick that was manufactured from dried and powdered lichen (Ekblaw 1927-28, 169). The height and intensity of the flame were then adjusted through constant poking and prodding with a stick or soapstone rod (Giffen 1930, 28; Mathiassen 1928, 148-49). The character of the flame was also influenced by air quality within the house, and changed from white to yellow as carbon monoxide levels increased (Ekblaw 1927-28, 169).

Lighting conditions are often difficult to simulate because the effects caused by the scattering and reflection of light are extremely complex. Mediums that affect how environments appear under illumination include light emitters such as flames, light absorbers such as soot clouds, and light scatterers such as dust or smoke (Chalmers et al. 1995, 227). Ethnographic accounts indicate that the combustion of oil and blubber in stone lamps produced levels of soot which many European visitors found difficult to tolerate. Autopsies of Eskimo mummies from Greenland have also shown considerable amounts of soot in lung tissue. This indicates that combusted particles would have been suspended in the air and subsequently inhaled by family members (Hansen et al. 1991, 94). The air-borne suspension of soot would have had the effect of absorbing light, thereby affecting how the interiors of whalebone houses would have appeared when illuminated by the flame of the stone lamp. Future research will concentrate on modelling the effects of air-suspended particulates on lighting in the virtual whalebone house model. However, for the purposes of this project we have simplified matters by focusing our attention on simulating the effect that a flickering lamp flame would have had on the distribution of light and shadow within the house. To our surprise, the iridescent light of the lamp caused the shadows cast by the whalebone roof rafters to move, thus creating an impression that the bones themselves were animate.

Architects occasionally use light to produce false impressions of interior and exterior spaces. These types of optical illusions in architecture have been documented archaeologically at such sites as Chich'en Itza where tricks of light and shadow produce images of serpents that appear to move down the central stair case of a huge radial pyramid on the equinoxes (Schele and Mathews 1998, 204). Meg Conkey has also suggested that the flickering of torchlight in Upper Paleolithic caves may have been used to create the illusion of movement in rock art images of animals (Conkey 2004, pers. comm.). Similarly, the moving shadows of whale elements, generated by the flickering flames of sea mammal lamps in Thule winter houses, might have created the illusion that the house was, indeed, animate and alive.

What is fascinating about this observation is that it coincides with the idea that Inupiat whalebone architecture represented ready-made tupitkaq creatures that could be animated by shamans for various purposes (Lowenstein 1993, 43). An individual could have increased the flickering of the lamp by simply waving a hand or other flat object over the flame. It is plausible that the wives of umialit could have used this simple illusion during the whale hunt to create the impression that they were animating their dead whale-iglus. This effect could have also been employed by Thule shamans to illustrate stories involving tupitkaq creatures, or the animation of whalebone for nefarious purposes (recall the Inupiat story involving the animation of sharpened jaws attached to the katak of a dwelling (Lowenstein 1993, 43).

The idea that individuals in Thule society may have been able to manipulate the sensory experiences of others strategically in these ways is really no different from Siberian shamans using drums to modify and control their voices during important rituals. In this way, the use of light and shadow to animate the interiors of Thule dwellings is comparable to the examples of buried ceremonialism described by Sheehan (1997). Like the composite animals concealed invisibly within kariyit, the animated parts of the whale iglu would be similarly hidden from occupants until it was necessary to reveal them through the manipulation of flickering lamp light (Note 1).


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