A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Set in Stone
Why did prehistoric Native Americans fashion the enigmatic objects known as 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.”
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.
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