Shopping maul

Maul from the Dundas Collection.  Source: Sotheby's

Tsimshian Maul from the Dundas Collection. Source: Sotheby's

The Dundas collection of Tsimshian objects deserves a week of posts – not just for the stunning beauty and resonance of the art but for the profound issues in heritage management, cultural property ownership, and repatriation ethics which it raises or exemplifies.  I’ve been reading up on it a bit, and at one level the isssue is very simple: these Tsimshian treasures should have been repatriated – not to Canada per se, but to Tsimshian Territory.  At another level, there are complex, interwoven threads of (mutual) respect and ownership which make (and made) for no easy solution.   And no easy solution was reached: the collection was broken up, with the majority of the pieces sold to foreign hands (by foreign, here, I mean non-Tsimshian though I am prepared to argue this).

But for today, I was interested to see the Sotheby’s auction catalogue from the 2006 sale of this collection is still online.  The most interesting piece, of course, is the northern-style maul, seen above.  It sold for a surprising USD $1,320.00.  I wonder if it was in use at the time of collection or if it was already an archaeological specimen.  Collection of such materials from archaeological sites and their sale is, of course, now illegal although so far as I know there is a grandfather clause for older collections pre-dating the modern legislation.  I imagine any maul without such prominent provenance would be worth very little indeed.  Despite fetching far more than I would have imagined, it was a mere snip compared to the mask below which sold for a jaw-dropping USD$1,808,000.00.

Tsimshian Mask from the Dundas Collection. Source: Sotheby's.

13 responses to “Shopping maul

  1. Hah!! – you called it a maul (as in a hafted maul); but its a splitting adze – gotcha! (I fully expect to pay retribution for that….). Dunno if you could have made the title pun with ‘adze’ though….

    My guess from the pic is that the splitting adze was archaeological. The broken end looks beach-rolled to me and there is no sign of mastic in the hafting area as I would expect if it was in use up till the time of collection (plus surely the collectors would pay a premium for a haft?). These things were awesome woodworking tools, they appear to have bashed their way into the wood rather than cutting into it. We’ve found a number of CMTs on the north coast which show shredded fibre within the ‘chopped’ notch, with occasional deep punctures from a wide angle cutting bit at the back of the notch. I’m sure these splitting adzes made those marks.

    A really cool description of their use in the Yukon (Inland Tlingit I believe) as well as the spruce stumps and woodchips that resulted from their use, is Leechman 1950. During his geological mapping he saw the stumps randomly all over the place on hummocks; his guides told him they were where their ancestors had killed a moose and moved camp to dry the meat (thus also explaining the distribution of small lithic scatters all over the boreal forest). The stone tools had been in use there until the Klondike and many households still had heirloom hafted ones.
    Leechman, D.
    1950 Aboriginal tree-felling. In National Museum of Canada Bulletin. Annual Report of the National Museum for the Fiscal Year 1948-1949., pp. 44-49. vol. 118. King’s Printer and controller of stationary, Ottawa.


    • I claim the Voice of Authority on ground stone woodworking tools, Sir.

      But I will acknowledge that is a very cool looking reference — I’ll have to get that. Thanks.


  2. Oops, forgot to say – is the difference the angle of the bit relative to the direction it is swung? Or is that just adze (90 degrees) vs. axe (0 degrees)?


  3. Click to access CMThandbook_cover-p16.pdf

    page 16 (on the pdf count) has some nice examples (I wonder who provide those??) 🙂


  4. What do you mean APM? Are you asking about the diff between a hafted maul and a splitting adze, or between the latter and a ‘finishing’ adze?


  5. All of them. Splitting maul is what I have in my woodshed (as per my link above), and its what I call it too. It looks an awful lot like the artifact Q has illustrated, except it’s bit is at 90 degrees to the stone one. So, is that difference?


  6. Well, adzes are always hafted 90 degrees relative to an axe. The splitting adze never has a sharp blade (well, not very) as Hilary Steward pointed out – but it certainly wasn’t primarily for splitting planks or shingles or firewood (though it must have been used for that too), since wooden wedges were fine for those purposes. A ‘splitting maul’ is really a misnomer I think, even though it is in the commercial and popular lexicon. A maul is a heavy hammer, with a large striking surface; in western technology I think they were traditionally all hardwood, though I expect some woodworkers could shed some light.

    I think the splitting maul is really a splitting axe, but the marketers wanted to distinguish it and imply a sledge-hammer type weight???


  7. The purpose? To cut down large cedar trees or to cut notches in them that could then be used for taking out planks from the standing tree. Check out that CMT Handbook link I posted above, and scroll down through the next several pages (I see we put an illustration from Leechman 1950 in there too). You’ll see the scoring from wooden wedges on the back of one of the notches. The cool thing with these splitting adzes is there really aren’t any cut marks per se. The wood is simply smashed and the fibres cracked, snapped, or shredded, leaving a very rough surface with shredded wood fibres hanging down all over. The splitting adze bashes out slots; wooden wedges are worked in to split off large chunks; repeat as necessary. I expect a good smack from the splitting adze would help a wooden wedge get that first bite. It must have worked well for the northern groups to use it; and it worked on spruce and probably other trees as well as cedar.

    Find a student to do some replicative work! Then send them out to chop up a 500 year old cedar. Just don’t say it was my idea when the authorities come to the door!


    • Ah, ok, I looked at the wrong page. Damn PDF page numbering. I guess the blunt-ish working edge would be extremely robust and resistant to breakage, and use on a fairly soft wood such as cedar would work. Huh. I agree, it must have worked, it’s just a different strategy and not an immediately obvious one.


  8. Oops, forgot to say – is the difference the angle of the bit relative to the direction it is swung? Or is that just adze (90 degrees) vs. axe (0 degrees)?


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