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Physical Dimensions

L: 15" W: 1 1/2" D: 1"




Tlingit Atlatl

The atlatl, a Nahuatl word for a throwing stick, was held in the hand and propelled a spear with greater force through increasing the leverage of the forearm.

File catalog Entry: Atlatl Tlingit Southeast Alaska c. 1750-1800 Yew, glass beads, iron pin 15" l. x 1 1/2" w. x 1" depth T218 Private Collection, England; Christie's, London, December 8, 1992, lot 153 The atlatl, a Nahuatl word for a throwing board or stick, was used by the Aleut, Pacific Eskimo, and Yup'ik to propel a weighted dart about three feet long, at a much greater force than could be done with the arms alone. The throwing stick increases the leverage and acceleration inherent in the hunter's armstroke. Throwing boards from these cultures are a marvel of ergonomic design, sculpted to fit the hand so gracefully and effortlessly that not a bone or muscle is out of place when holding one. Seldom are these atlatls decorated to more than a very simple and straightforward degree, and they have been used for hunting up until very recent times. Among the Tlingit, however, a very different association is made with what appears to be essentially the same tool. Tlingit atlatls, of which perhaps twelve existing examples can be found, seem to have been made only in the 18th and very early 19th centuries, judging by the characteristics of their usually extensive sculptural and two-dimensional decoration. (c.f. Holm 1988, p. 282; Wardwell 1996, pp.218-223) Perhaps the most significant distinction is that the Tlingit versions of this object, which otherwise could have great ergonomic potential, are almost uncomfortable to hold, let alone use as they were intended (Holm 1988, p. 282). In some examples, such as this one, the small pin that would hold the feathered end of the throwing dart in place is in fact at the wrong angle to do so effectively. Further, the carved imagery of Tlingit atlatls is usually very shamanic in nature. Taken as a whole, these circumstances suggest that the Tlingit version of this hunting weapon relied more on the efficacy of the spiritual assistance and power represented in the carved embellishments than on the functionality of the physical object. These were apparently employed not by dedicated hunters of animal game, but by the spiritual warriors of the unseen world, the Tlingit shamans, against those non-physical forces with which they had to contend in order to cure illness and provide their specialized variety of insight into the events of the physical world. The relief-carving on this atlatl is elegant and masterful, both in sculpture and flat-design. The tiny face carved into the snout of the terminal head at the bottom of the atlatl connects to its body relief-carved beneath the monster's jaw on the other side of the weapon. Four small, round glass trade beads have been inlayed into two pairs of flat-design inner ovoids, giving a depth and glow to those areas. It is possible that these arrived on the northern coast via Native trade, before direct contact by Euro-Americans brought trade beads in great numbers. This circumstance suggests that the atlatl could have been made very early, as the style of its creation implies, perhaps as early as 1750 (or before). Christie's 1992, lot 153; Vincent 1995a, p.87; Wardwell 1996, pp.222-223, fig.320.

Provenance: (1) Private Collection. England. Found in England.; (2) Christie's. London. 8 December 1992, lot 153.; (3) Eugene V. Thaw.


Alaska, USA
Northwest Coast

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