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Place: Alaska
Category: Ritual

wood, Cook Inlet (presumably), l. 135 cm, w. 2.4 cm, d. 1.5 cm, Inv. Am 689

Humphrey No. 325: ‘a strong bow made of wood. ‘T was braced allover with the sinews of some animal, which came off on the Voyage home, from Unalaschka in Beering Straits on the N.W. Coast of America.’ Cook Inlet (presumably)

This bow, which is half-round in cross-section with the flat side facing outwards, is slightly and asymmetrically bent, somewhat narrower in the middle, and ends in short, conical pegs at both ends for the attachment of the (missing) string. The wood is patinated, shows traces of red pigment, and is worm-eaten on the outside. The traces of a former, complex, sinew wrapping can be recognised by a lighter colour. According to Humphrey, the sinews were lost in transit to Europe. His statement on the bow’s provenance, ‘from Unalaschka in Beering Straits on the N. W. Coast of America’, is more questionable however.

Bows from the Aleutian Islands are rare because they were systematically destroyed by the Russians in the eighteenth century. Black (1982: 132) therefore considered one bow attributed to the Aleut in the Museum of St. Petersburg to be ‘the only preserved example of an Aleut bow’. Varjola (1990: 291, Fig. 494) doubted the Aleut origin of the piece, because 1) a similar bow in the Museum of Copenhagen was collected from the Aglegmiut by Holmberg, and 2) these bows (others may be found in Helsinki and Hildesheim) show representations of the caribou, unknown on the Aleutian Islands.

Other bows attributed to the Aleut (Oldenburg 84, Vienna 3917) correspond to that of a Kuskokwim example (Murdoch 1885: PI. 3, Fig. 6) and another piece evidently collected by Webber in Prince William Sound (Henking 1957: 370f., Fig. 38; Kaeppler 1978b: 66, 68, Fig. 126; cf. also Loutherbourg’s drawing of a man of Prince William Sound, after Webber: Kaeppler 1978b: 20, Fig. 41). Still, these bows have a sinew wrapping (Murdoch’s ‘Southern Type’), similar to that which must have once been present on the Göttingen bow. The only contemporary illustration of an Aleut bow was that of M.D. Levashov in 1767. It depicted a weapon which differed to those mentioned above with respect to its curvature and the form of sinew reinforcement (Liapunova 1975: PI. 2; Henry 1984: 15).

Descriptions of the bows north of Nootka Sound in connection with the third voyage are rare. Zimmermann’s (1981: 79) more general report nevertheless mentioned the sinew reinforcement: ‘Their weapons consist of bows and arrows which are elaborately wrapped and reinforced with dried whalegut, which is similar to a string.’ Samwell confirmed the existence of bows in Prince William Sound, but noted that the travellers only saw few of them (Beaglehole 1967, lllb: 1112). According to Cook’s observations, the bows on the Chukot Peninsula, on the other side of the Bering Straits, were similar to those seen on the American coast (Beaglehole 1967, Illa: 411). In Webber’s illustrations, they are similar to the piece in his collection (Joppien/Smith 1985-88, lll/2: 502-04, 3.269-72). Bows were acquired in Kuskokwim Bay, in Cook Inlet, and in Norton Sound. Those from the latter were designated as similar to those from Cook Inlet. The local inhabitants of the Chukot Peninsula could not be made to part with their bows for anything (Beaglehole 1967, Illa: 403, 411; Illb: 1116, 1438). If the above were in fact the only collection locations, and Webber’s bow thus came from Kuskokwim Bay and not Prince William Sound, it seems the most likely that the Göttingen bow is from Cook Inlet. Christian F. Feest


Beaglehole, John Cawte, The Journals of Captain James Cook on his Voyages of Discovery The Voyage of the Resolution and Discovery 1776-1780, Hakluyt Society, Extra Series, 36, 1 u. 2. vol. 3, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1955-1967 IIIa and IIIb.

Black, Lydia T, Aleut Art, Anchorage, 1982.

Henking, Karl H, ‘Die Südsee- und Alaskasammlung Johann Wäber. Beschreibender Katalog’, in Jahrbuch der Bernischen Historischen Museums in Bern, 1957, vols 35-36, pp. 325-389.

Henry, John Frazier, Early Maritime Artists of the Pacific Northwest Coast 1741-1841, Vancouver, 1984.

Joppien, Rudiger and Smith, Bernard, The Art of Captain Cook’s Voyages, 3 vols in 4 parts, New Haven and London, 1985-1988.

Kaeppler, Adrienne L, Cook Voyage Artifacts in Leningrad, Berne and Florence Museums, Bishop Museum Press, Honolulu, 1978b.

Liapunova, RG, Ocherki po etnografii aleutov, Leningrad, 1975.

Murdoch, John, ‘A study of the Eskimo bows in the U.S. National Museum’, in Report of the U.S. National Museum for the Year 1884, Washington, DC, 1885.

Varjola, Pirjo, The Etholén Collection. The Ethnographic Alaskan Collection of Adolf Etholén and his Contemporaries in the National Museum of Finland, Helsinki, 1990.

Zimmermann, Heinrich, Reise um die Welt mit Cap. Cook [1781], Insel Taschenbuch 555, Frankfurt a. M. 1981.

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