Bannerstones and how they relate to the Atlatl

An Argument Against the Notion That Bannerstones are Atlatl Weights

The following is a recently updated article on bannerstones written and researched by Robert S. Berg of Thunderbird Atlatl. Thoughts, questions and comments are welcomed. Thunderbird Atlatl will be publishing a booklet on this theory in the next few months.

Archaeologists have been agonizing for a long time over the use of banner stones. Some have offered that they are atlatl weights or ceremonial pieces. Others have suggested that they are for drilling, cordage making, or fire making. My theory proposes that they are part of a kit of tools used to make and repair atlatls and darts.

My theory has met with a lot of resistance because of the works of William S. Webb (1882-1964), who proposed that bannerstones were part of an atlatl. He cites “in situ” evidence which consists mainly of bannerstones found in line with atlatl handles and hooks in graves that archaeologists dug up during the construction of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s massive water control system in the southeast during the early part of the 20th Century. He proposed these theories without a complete knowledge of how atlatls work. I do not believe that he ever hunted with one or tried to make or repair an atlatl or dart in the field with Stone Age style equipment. It is possible that he never even fully grasped the techniques as to how they were actually used as the techniques for using atlatls were lost or (possibly understood by only a few experimenters) then eventually revived in the 1980s by people like Bill Tate, Ray Madden, and William R. Perkins.

The bannerstone is an artifact that has been considered an atlatl weight since William S. Webb said it was in the first half of the 20th century. Several booklets and reports were published on the subject based on several excavated graves from Indian Knoll Kentucky. He described what he termed in situe finds which had an atlatl handle a bannerstone and an atlatl hook in order proving that the bannerstone was part of the atlatl. Some of his publications: Indian Knoll, Atlatls and Bannerstones, Excavations at Indian Knoll.

I believe his work is flawed. First and foremost bannerstones make no sense by their configuration to be atlatl weights. To discover the truth, I examined many examples of durable remains that are found in almost any Indian artifact collection. I made replicas and filled in the missing pieces with wood, cordage, glue, feathers, leather and bark, by way of a series of experiments. The experiments were designed to produce working, practical weapons, tools and techniques similar to what may have been used by the Woodland era American Indian. Then I field tested them during actual hunting and fishing expeditions. I started out this endeavor not only to develop this theory but also to pursue a personal quest to learn the primitive skills necessary to hunt and fish using the atlatl.

I experimented with bannerstones, gorgets, atlatls and darts, celts, projectile points, fire by friction, cordage making, and primitive hunting techniques using mainly the atlatl for more than fifteen years. Much of what I did required learning and mastering difficult and complex skills such as flint knapping, marksmanship and hunting with an atlatl, atlatl fishing, wood working with stone age style tools, cordage making, tracking, and making fires with friction. I now consider myself to be fairly proficient in all of these skills. I have hunted big game with atlatls successfully with more than twenty kills. I am also accepted among primitive technology students and practitioners as a teacher.

My conclusion is that bannerstones were unlikely to have been used as atlatl weights, except on modern atlatls, which is contrary to the myth that has developed from William S. Webb’s theories. The idea was proposed as absolute truth by Webb who is no longer alive to argue with. Now we have lots of people who have run with the idea. They have invested time in making so called replica atlatls using bannerstone weights or writing various articles about bannerstone weights with mystic properties like increasing velocity or silencing the dart. They all followed the leader like lemmings over the cliff.

The atlatls allegedly found with bannerstones on them didn’t have shafts upon which the bannerstone, atlatl hook and handle were attached. Only a very small percentage of bannerstones found thus far, have been found in situ in the way which caused Webb to theorize that they were parts that went together. Since Webb’s theories I have heard of no new finds that are similar to those that he reported on. I would add here that thousands of bannerstones have been found all over the place in North America, but they have only been found with hooks and handles in digs done by Webb or I might say digs done by Webb’s crews. It is unclear whether Webb actually participated in the digs. If his work were submitted to a group of peers today it would be highly suspect. It’s possible that the bannerstones were simply in the same container with atlatls when the owners of them were buried. Webb doesn’t even discuss that possibility.

Many people have suggested to me that there are petroglyphs that prove that bannerstones were atlatl weights. A picture at www.thudscave.com/petroglyphs/atlatls.htm
Shows what some people believe is positive proof, but I disagree. However, if those pictures depict bannerstones, it seems that they would weigh about 10 pounds or more. Also the pictures are way too much like cartoon figures to get any real information from them. It is difficult to determine anything from the drawings because of the drawing style.
There are other reasons I think bannerstones were not atlatl weights. I have examined hundreds of them in various conditions from completely whole to broken bits and pieces. I looked carefully at the holes and how they were drilled. I looked at wear patterns and I measured the holes. Some of the holes were as small as 1/4 inch, many were 3/8″, and the average was about half an inch, the largest I have seen was over an inch. Most of the holes seemed too small for an atlatl shaft that would work well. I compared many bannerstones that were broken from the Fogelman collection (150 or so pieces) many had holes that were 1/4″, 3/8″, 1/2″ up to One and 1/8 inches.

What they all had in common, where the bannerstone was complete enough to detect this, was that they were all balanced as if they were designed to spin. I maintain that it is evident and incontrovertible that bannerstones were balanced around the central hole because they were meant to spin. Atlatls don’t need to spin. I asked myself- what would a hunter gatherer needed that spins? Something to make string, fire or drill holes is the answer. I think it is the string making tool that is the best answer. It’s the best answer because string is necessary to haft points and tie on fletching among other handy applications for cordage in the hunter gatherer’s lifestyle.

Bannerstones are also all over the place as far as weight is concerned. Most of them seem to me to be too heavy to be atlatl weights. They are very apt to break in use as an atlatl weight and actual atlatl weights can be made in various ways and attached to the atlatl much easier than drilling a hole through a rock with grit and a reed.

I believe the bannerstone was used as a spindle weight to make string to tie on fletching and projectile points, and possibly a spindle weight to turn and taper dart shafts. It was not part of the atlatl at all but was carried in a kit, made from bark or leather, with the atlatl. It was probably fastened by pressure fit onto a round stick about the same length as an atlatl. The kit would most likely also contain a wad of fiber, several flint points, scrapers, pine pitch or other adhesive material, and some feathers for fletching.

A typical dart uses about three yards length of thread to haft the point, whip the shaft behind the point, tie on the fletching and whip the dart shaft in front of the knock dimple. The time saved is enormous considering that on a typical hog hunt I have expended as many as seven darts that I either had to replace because of damage or repair. This use is an effective time and labor saving feature, which alone could explain why bannerstones were carried by early American Indians.

But there is more. In the process of making darts I also used the bannerstone as a fly weight to help to make my darts round and also to taper them. This experiment was partly conducted at Mercyhurst College with several students at in Northern Pennsylvania. We cut down an ash tree and split it into dart sized staves using only stone and bone tools. I used flint scrapers to shape the trapezoidal shaped stave into roughly a round shaft. I formed the front end of the shaft so it would fit tightly into the bannerstone and spun the dart powering the device with a simple bow like one would use to start a fire by friction. I used ground flint chips as an abrasive by adding them dry into a cone shaped piece of leather that I held in my left hand around the spinning dart shaft. The result was impressive as this method created a perfectly round shaft that was smooth and consistent.

Another problem with the bannerstone is its weight. Many of them simply are too heavy to be atlatl weights. I have seen bannerstones that weigh more than a pound. Most weigh more than 100 grams. Compared with objects known to be atlatl weights the difference is very significant. Typical atlatl weights that have been found that tie to the side of an atlatl weigh an average of 3 ounces.

There is an ethnological model for the use of a bannerstone like spindle weight in the form of the Navajo spindle. The Southwest Indians have been using this design for longer than they remember. The Navajo spindle has a wooden wheel that works just like the bannerstone did in my experiments. I helped with an experiment for a woman from Ohio, who was gathering information for her doctoral thesis; she compared (among other things) the speed of hand cordage making to spindle made cordage. In the time it took me to produce one foot of hand made cordage I made about three yards of thread on the bannerstone spindle whorl.

A typical dart uses about three yards length of twisted thread to haft the point, whip the shaft behind the point, tie on the fletching and whip the dart shaft in front of the knock dimple. The time saved is enormous considering that on a typical big game hunt many darts would be used and damaged. This use of a tool to speed up making and repairing darts would be effective for saving time and labor. This alone could explain why bannerstones were carried by early American Indians.

I have no proof that I am right either but I can see through a tall tale and bannerstones as atlatl weights is a tall tale. I have made several atlatls with bannerstone weights and they work alright but there is nothing that the bannerstone does to the atlatl that improves how it works to make it worthwhile drilling a hole through a rock with a reed and grit, grinding and polishing the object for as long as a week. A simple rock from a stream bed will do the same thing.

Although my experiments and the evidence are certainly not conclusive, it is compelling. What I can say for sure is that there are lots of problems with bannerstones as atlatl weights. Whereas I perceive from my perusal of the evidence that I have been able to check, coupled with a great deal of experience in using atlatls that practical uses for the bannerstone exist that can be easily replicated that prove to be significant advantages as a tool rather than as an as an atlatl weight to a hunter in stone age America.

Copyright 2007

31 thoughts on “Bannerstones and how they relate to the Atlatl”

  1. Mr. Berg,
    I agree that bannerstones are not Atlatl weights and I like your spindle theory.

    I’m also interested in your theory of building, maintenance and repairing both the shafts of the darts, and the atlatl. I was shown a stone last week, that I have pictures of that seems to me to be a tool for shaft honing or smoothing, but looks nothing like anything I’ve been able to find looking on line or in any of my artifact books. It was found in South Carolina several years ago. It appears to be granet and has some decorative features. It fits nicely in the palm of your hand, and has a 3/4 “, perfectly shaped rounded half hole on the bottom side. Any ideas on what this may be?

    Best Regards,

    Herman

  2. The biggest problem with deciding what a bannerstone was used for, is where to place it in terms of age. Atlatls were used from Paleo times thru to Late Archaic times. However, bannerstones have been found in situ on the chest area of skeletal ramains. These burials are from the Adena-Hopewell culture of the early and middle Woodland periods, long after the atlatl disappeared, at a time when the true bow and arrow was invented and in use. I believe bannerstones were ceremonial, personal items, attached to a shaft, and served sort of ownership momentos for the deceased to the afterlife. If they were used as spindles, there would be absolutely no reason to spend so much time in making them so artistic as they are.

  3. I like the theory! Makes more sense than anything i have ever heard, I know if i made a nice banner i wouldnt want to sling it out through the weeds and ding it up after weeks of hard work and no more material. I agree 100% with your accomplishments. thanks Jason Broughton

  4. As previously stated, I do believe bannerstones ( but not conclusively ) were personal momentos, which were interred with a deceased individual. I have two other theories I have proposed, though seemingly ” out there “, according to some academic personal. They could also have neen an implement used as a form of ” currency”. An ancient Indian would be able to ” buy ” certain items, such as hides or furs, food, or any necessary items needed. The better made and more artistic banners would be given a value, in terms of trading for need items. They could also have been attached to a shaft and placed along side a recent burial to signify where the burial actually existed. This, of course, is still practiced today! We call them tombstones. Each banner, being individually crafted, would mark a location, which then could easily be found by any member of the deceased family members. Thank you all for reading this, and I would appreciate any comments, crtical or otherwise, to support my theories. P.R. Frey

  5. Hi Paul,
    Thanks for your theory. Sorry we are slow on getting back to these comments. Found your theories interesting! If you have any other thoughts, please post again!

  6. I have a bannerstone that my uncle pasted down to me from my grandpa. My grandpa found it in a field during plowing when he was young. My uincle took it to ISU to get studied on and they said it is 5,000 year old. it has a couple of marks on it from they said it was from a plow. it has a hole in the center and is shaped a double pointed ax. It as big as your palm. Been trying to get info on it and alot of people said it was used on a atlatl. But this past week i went to Pioneer days festival and there was a full blooded soix there that is a i guees you say indian doctor. He showed me all the feathers that he recieved. Each feather was for a ceremony that he has done and can do. I showed him my banner stone and he had a different answer than anybody else i have asked. He said it was used to tap the enemy with. A brave indian would show his bravery by taking this and going to the enemy and taping them with it without hurting them. If he got back alive he would recieve his feather. And the feather that this chief had were eagles feathers and not fake. So email me with you answer to this. Coltsfan3027@aol.com.

  7. Paul, I found your article and experience interesting and impressive, and who knows, perhaps even correct. However, I am still not convinced that even the largest bannerstones could not or would not have been used as atlatl weights. My own experience with making and using this tool as an atlatl weight suggests that as unweildy as the larger banners seemed to be, they would or could have been a perfectly rational solution to achieving a balanced weapon for hunting or war when using larger and heavier darts in hunting megafauna that was contemporaneous with much of the timeline in which bannerstones were found, and there is some evidence to suggest that the atlatl overlapped the use of the bow. The men (and women) who used these tools grew up throwing darts for a living and with well developed throwing arms could have easily justified massive weights to multiply force for penetration, espececially when used at close range. As to the implausibility of such time, energy, and elaboration being brought to bear on something when a simple stone would suffice, I would suggest that the same argument could be used with their use as spindle weights. As a professional artist, I can attest that people will go to unreasonable lengths to make a tool or weapon they use, love, and respect into a thing of beauty. You may be right, who knows, but so far , Webb’s excavations and conclusions come closest to suggesting the purpose of these artifacts; I hope in the future finds will be made that are unequivocal. In the meantime, keep going with your investigations-I consider your work to be both worthy and thought-provoking. Thanks, Louis Jones

  8. Another thought… The crescent banner stone could have been used for the model of a perfect boat design, representing perfect balance, also related to the rattle stones that are today represented. Cheap crooked designs in plastic concept, sold at planetariums and science museums. In my teens I once saw a 8 inch banner stone crescent design pointed at two ends, perfectly balanced in the middle on a ridge that looked like a wankel motor rotation outline with only three sides, if cut in half. Triangular but rounded and perfect in design. As perfect as the ancient Egyptians were able to create. Perfectly balanced Rock vase Bowl examples that can be found. Crescent Banner think of a Banana that could settle on only one edge with the ends curved upward. The stone when rotated smooth in one direction until friction stopped it. when rotated opposit to the earths flow it rattles stops and then begins to rotates with the same earths rotation. With the hole you could easily adjust for imperfections with a wooden base. You might think of it as a spin the bottle design. This was my thought on that. But there are many other amazing characteristics this concept relates to. There is only one ancient book that mentions the design for boat design characteristics. I wont mention it. Clue: It’s found throughout the world today, and there are millions of copies of it. Other banner stones. The oval ones sometimes represented with two holes, I have some ideas there I recognize, but won’t mention either.

  9. Thank you for your comments and information. I was very interested to find out about the use of laths to make stone objects in early Egypt.

  10. being a carpenter I see value in bannerstones as weapons every single one that I see seems balanced and able to accept a shaft or maybe some sort of cordage as if to swing it around and strike an enemy,i would be happy to demonstrate on sombodys skull if they disagree I just don’t see the mystery the way the slate is polished would make them strong every man moving through time during this period would want to carry some sort of light effective weapon explaining the abundance of them ak47 of the day if you will just my 2 cents

  11. Bob, I completely agree with your arguments against bannerstones being atlatl weights. I have tried weighted atlatls with the same results you describe. I have had numerous arguments with archaeologists over this. Beyond that I recently found a reprint of a 1921 paper in the American Anthropologist. The paper describes three banner stones which were found in NC with short stone handles. Obviously they were not atlatls. I can send a copy if necessary.

  12. Bob, we met at the Ochloknee Primitive Arts festival in Florida. I’ve been building repro’s of the Indian Knoll atlatls, as well as repro’s of Aztec ones, and of those found in various sites here in Florida. I have an idea I have not seen proposed: if the atlatl is SLUNG, i.e., whipped around through an arc more from the shoulder, the weight would produce a HUGE increase in energy to be transferred to the dart. This would thereby create a greater flexing of the dart. It would actually allow the thrower to use heavier and stiffer dartshafts, similar to a heavier poundage bow being able to handle arrows of stiffer spine and heavier weight. The centrifugal force icea also allows for the idea that the weight would yield greater accuracy as it lessens side-to-side instability during the throw. Piercing the hide of large, thick-skinned critters require accuracy and sharp points; busting through bone into the “boiler room” requires MOMENTUM, which means heavier projectiles. I am partially inspired by my Australian woomeras from Northern Queensland. These are made from HEAVY woods, and several varieties are LONG ( more than 30″.) These allow them, in the videos I’ve been able to find, to get correct flex and accuracy from spears that appear tobe(in most cases) much stiffer and evidently heavier than the great majority of those I’ve seen used in demo’s, research, and competitions here Stateside. I also think that throwing styles in different regions varied as much as archery styles and techniques did 300 hundred years ago. I’m still at an early stage in this; I’ll keep you posted on results as they are achieved.

  13. Bob… I love your research and hands on testing of the ideas. Fun to read the other ideas posted here and hope more people share their creative ideas/feedback. I do believe that in time we will reverse engineer what the bannerstones were used for along with other problematic artifacts that still seem to be a mystery. I have respect for Webb and other early archaeologist that were doing their best to come up with solutions for these mystery objects, however I also think they made some mistakes that have infected those that came after them. I think there could also be a bias that it is fun to think bannerstones are used with atlatl just like it would be fun to find parts of the most advanced machine guns of our time hundreds of years from now. I like to think of many of these stone crafted objects like birdstones, bannerstones, plummets, gorgets as advanced pieces of technology for their time. I think there is a reason for everything and you have to keep asking why. I also think it tells us a lot when you see all the different designs, they must still work, regardless of their size or shape. There is a reason the bannerstones are designed to spin. There is a reason they are made from stone. There is a reason there is a hole in the middle. There is a reason they are flat. I think you have to take pictures of hundreds of them from all different locations and put them together to study them and whatever reason you come up with will fit all of those different designs. Yes the are polished and amazing pieces of art, but I also think they had a real use and purpose and not just a charmstone or good luck piece or gaming token. Of course they had value and significance and took time and skill to build, but they also had a daily function that held value in what they could create (as an advanced piece of technology for their time). The interesting thing about technology and ideas is that they get created all over the world and from different time periods (good ideas get figured out by many cultures and many different people when they share the same needs, over different time periods…. or they even get invented, lost and then invented again). It is a shame that the American Indians did not leave a better written history behind that could have been found on pottery, cave or cliff drawings, like other cultures did (Greek, Egyption, etc). I think we have to think backwards in time to understand their daily life, culture and needs. They went to a lot of work to make these and it was for a very special reason… thousands of bannerstones over thousands of miles over thousands of years, all had 1 basic use and similar design.

  14. Hi Tim,
    Thanks for your input. It would be interesting to receive a copy of the article. Sorry for the delay in responding we are at shows almost every weekend this time of year.
    Thanks
    Bob Berg

  15. Thank you for checking out my theories and for your comments. I really like your synopsis. What you have written is a very clear and short version of what I have theorized. May I quote from what you have written?
    Bob Berg

  16. The best way to test your theory is to recreate the equipment and the skills required to use it and do a series of tests. That is what I did to come to the conclusions I came up with.
    Cheers! Bob Berg

  17. I would be honored if you quoted me on anything… I hope you post up more theories or share your ideas also on other problematic artifacts like birdstones, boatstones, plummets and slate gorgets (not the round white shell gorgets) as they also deserve some debate and new thought to what they were used for (beyond charmstones, hair pieces, game tokens, jewelry, boat cleats, net weights, belt buckles and bolos). Thanks and keep up the great work!!

  18. Check out this boatstone that was found at Jonas Short Mound in AR, I think it is a critical clue that they found polished river stones still inside of it and hints that these could be used as a rattle. Note they assume it must be mounted on an atlatl (how crazy is it that anyone would consider adding noise to a hunting weapon?). Yet the need to attach just about anything we don’t understand to an atlatl still seems too hard to resist, even when it makes no sense, even for a ceremonial design/ excuse. (I think Webb sent many who followed down the wrong path).

    http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/tejas/ancestors/images/jshort5.html

  19. just to be clear… no atlatls were found in the excavations at Jonas Short Mound. I went back to the original source (Edward B. Jelks 1965 The Archeology of McGee Bend Reservoir, Texas, Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Texas at Austin) to check; the archeologists looked for such evidence and found none.

  20. Thought provoking article. Consider this. We find occasional bannerstones here and some things I notice are…if shafts or cordage was passed through the hole, why is it not polished? Most I see have distinct drill marks I assume are from making the hole, indicating it was mounted stationary or with limited movement. Also, I have one that has what appear to be a dozen “tally marks”. That makes me think successful kills. While pondering them attached to an atlatl, I thought…why not attach it to the dart shaft at the middle where it would maybe add balance and when thrown, greatly increase impact penetration plus act as a stop so the shaft would not pass through the game?

  21. John V. H. I think the hole in bannerstones was to mount a permanent straight wooden shaft that would then allow the bannerstone to spin (no movement or wear to the inside of the hole). I think cordage was wound to the outside (never pulled through the hole). I am not sure why some bannerstones have marks and others don’t, but my guess is these are more likely to be markings for design or they could hold a function to keep strings apart (maybe bannerstones are flat if they are later passed through a small loom as a shuttle and or grooves are used to hold strings apart or at set distances, similar to weaving cards). True tally marks should be used for counting and often the marks I see on bannerstones are even or symmetrically placed and look more like markings for simple decoration. Larger or deeper tally marks on bannerstones could even be used for a comb or rake like function on a loom to pull the last weave down tight. Hope you post a link to pictures of any of the bannerstones you have found or that folks here could discuss in more detail.

  22. Also… On the idea of having the bannerstone attached to the dart vs. the atlatl, I think this idea should be easily testable to know if it helps in the physics of balance, distance or accuracy. My gut says that these objects were too finely crafted/polished to risk breaking them and thus we find too many in good condition for me to think they were used this way. Slate as a material choice seems especially brittle. I would guess some of the larger bannerstones would prove to make the darts too heavy as well. I would think they could use wood or other materials to create a stopping point if that was needed/helpful.

    -I do like your creative thinking and hope you post up more ideas to be debated here!

  23. APRELIMINARYREPoRToNTHESo.CALLED..BANNER.
    STONES”
    Baer, John Leonard; American Anthropotogist, 23:445-459′ 1921′

    The above article makes a pretty good case that the banner stones are ceremonial or status symbols. It describes several which were found with short handles attached. The article does not copy/paste well but if you request, I can send it as an attachment

  24. Bob, I love the newest video where you show a weight tied to a atlatl that allows longer darts the ability to counterbalance the weight as you hold it in position before you have to throw it (reducing strain on the arm). It was clear that these atlatl weights did not have a hole through them and were lashed to the atlatl instead (making most of the winged or cresent bannerstones we see with a hole then imply a different purpose than ever for any atlatl). Of course it is hard to know how long ancient darts would be to need this counter balance, but at least this is the first theory that makes sense. I understand the bar weights, as long as they don’t have the holes drilled in them that match the birdstones. Also I don’t think boatstones were ever used on atlatl. I think boatstones were used as rattles and of course you would not want to make noise when hunting.

  25. Can anyone find online from the hundreds of museum collections that contain atlatl from many cultures spanning thousands of years an example of an atlatl weight in use? I keep looking and the design never seems to include one. Here is a link to the ONLY known example I could find of an atlatl weight found attached and thought to be at maximum, 8,000 years old that I know of with a replica made to test. Site NV-Wa-197/Nicolarson Cave replica Note that the stone is lashed on from both ends (This atlatl weight is not a typical bannerstone design with centered hole drilled in it) https://www.tapatalk.com/groups/paleoplanet69529/site-nv-wa-197-nicolarson-cave-replica-t45873.html

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