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Set in Stone

Why did prehistoric Native Americans fashion the enigmatic objects known as bannerstones?

By Eric A. Powell

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Archaic Bannerstones


Around 8,000 years ago, in the woodlands of what is now the eastern United States, hunter-gatherers began to make stone objects with holes drilled in them that have no parallel in any other prehistoric society. Today, archaeologists call these highly polished and sometimes elaborate objects “bannerstones.” The name was coined by early twentieth-century scholars who thought they must have been mounted on shafts and used as emblems or ceremonial weapons. But just why they were made only during the so-called Archaic period, which ended around 3,000 years ago, has been debated by archaeologists for more than a hundred years.


Some have taken the position that they were not strictly ceremonial and were used as weights that imparted force and accuracy to spear-throwers, or atlatls. They were made from a wide variety of stone materials and in different sizes and shapes, though many take a “butterfly” form, so they may not all have been used for the same purposes. “Archaeologists are mystified by bannerstones,” says University of Florida archaeologist Kenneth Sassaman, who has studied the artifacts in detail. “We can’t know for sure what Archaic people were doing with them.”


The latest scholar attracted to the mystery of bannerstones is Fashion Institute of Technology art historian Anna Blume, who is making an intensive study of these artifacts in the collection of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. She has spent countless hours studying the objects. “Bannerstones get noisier and noisier the more time I spend with them,” says Blume. “These extraordinary Native American works from deep time still have a lot to tell us.” Her project is one of several that are providing a new vantage point from which to observe these intriguing objects, which Blume calls “still lifes in stone.”


Archaic Bannerstone Atlatl Reproduction


In the 1930s, University of Kentucky physicist-turned-archaeologist William Webb began excavating graves left by a culture known as the Shell Mound Archaic in Kentucky’s Green River Valley. Helped by a team of Works Progress Administration laborers, Webb unearthed a number of the drilled stones, which were by then already known as bannerstones. Because he found them lying between hooks and handles made of antler, he assumed they had once been connected to a wooden atlatl that had since disintegrated.


Atlatls are essentially throwing sticks with a handle on one end and a hook on the other that can hold a spear. By drawing the spear-thrower back and then hurling it forward, a hunter can use the atlatl as a lever to launch a spear, sending it farther and with more power than if launched only by hand. Webb assumed the bannerstones were meant to somehow increase the efficiency of such spear-throwers. Perhaps inspired by his background in physics, Webb made a long study of atlatl mechanics and determined that bannerstones were used as weights that added velocity and power to the spears hurled from the atlatl. Since Webb published his ideas in 1957, at least two generations of archaeologists have tried to replicate his results. Despite the fact that they are often still referred to as atlatl weights, scholars have largely been unable to show that bannerstones improve atlatl efficiency. “Like a lot of my colleagues, I experimented early on with atlatls and bannerstones,” says Alan Harn, curator emeritus at Dickson Mounds State Park in Illinois. “I must have cast hundreds of spears trying to understand them, but I never got a bannerstone to add thrust and power. They slowed me down.” Eventually, Harn gave up.


Egypt’s Final Redoubt in Canaan

The fiery end of the last Egyptian colony


Monday, June 12, 2017

Jaffa Thebes Limestone Relief


For three centuries, Egyptians ruled the land of Canaan. Armies of chariots and 10,000 foot soldiers under the pharaoh Thutmose III thundered through Gaza and defeated a coalition of Canaanite chiefdoms at Megiddo, in what is now northern Israel, in 1458 B.C. The Egyptians then built fortresses, mansions, and agricultural estates from Gaza to Galilee, taking Canaan’s finest products—copper from Dead Sea mines, cedar from Lebanon, olive oil and wine from the Mediterranean coast, along with untold numbers of slaves and concubines—and sending them overland and across the Mediterranean and Red Seas to Egypt to please its elites.


Jaffa Gaza Clay CoffinsJaffa Faience Horus EyeAs with many colonial ventures before and since, military conquest led to a new cultural order in the occupied lands. Across Israel, archaeologists have found evidence that Canaanites took to Egyptian customs. They created items worthy of tombs on the Nile, including clay coffins modeled with human faces and burial goods such as faience necklaces and decorated pots. They also adopted Egyptian imagery such as sphinxes and scarabs. For the Egyptians, Canaan was a major trophy. Artists in Egypt carved and painted narratives on the stone walls of temples boasting about vanquished subjects and depicting Canaanite prisoners naked and bound at the wrists.


Yet Egypt’s presence in Canaan ended sooner than the pharaohs might have expected. With Canaan under assault from seaborne invaders and hit by drought so severe it caused food shortages, Egypt’s colonial rule began to crumble around 1200 B.C., starting in the north and gradually spreading south. Egypt did not fall alone. The eastern Mediterranean’s two other great powers of the day, the Hittites in central Turkey and the Mycenaeans in Greece, saw their capitals sacked and their governments fail. They all toppled in the pan-Mediterranean Late Bronze Age collapse of the twelfth century B.C. Egypt’s 2,000-year-old dynastic system survived, but it lost its trade ties throughout the Mediterranean and its valuable outposts in Canaan.