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Bannerstones And How They Relate To The Atlatl

Bannerstones and how they Relate to the Atlatl

By Robert S. Berg

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. This theory proposes that they are part of a kit of tools used to make and repair atlatl darts. My theory also proposes that there is an interrelated purpose for several common artefacts.

My theory has met with a lot of skepticism and resistance because of the works of William S. Webb, who proposed that the bannerstone was actually part of an atlatl. He sites “in situ”evidence which consists mainly of bannerstones found in line with atlatl handles and hooks in graves that archaeologist 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 sincerely doubt that he ever hunted with one or tried to make or repair an atlatl or dart in the field with only stone age style equipment.

By way of proof, I took the hard and durable remains that one finds in almost any Indian artefact collection, and filled in the missing pieces of 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 like what may have been used by the Woodland era American Indian. Then I and my friends field tested them during actual hunting and fishing expeditions. I started out this endeavor not to prove this theory but in a personal quest to learn how to hunt and fish using the atlatl.

I experimented with the bannerstone, gorget, atlatls and darts, celts, projectile points , fire by friction, cordage making, and primitive hunting techniques using mainly the atlatl for more than ten 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.

These skills required a lot of practice and a willingness to go places where the resources for learning them were available. The most important of the resources were the people that I encountered on my quest, not to mention the many material things that so many people shared with me along the way. I owe a great deal to people I now consider friends whom I met along the way who shared in my quest.

Many people have asked me what motivated me to do this. When I was about ten, during recess I found a dart point on the newly graded ball field near my school in Apalachin, New York. I remember vividly that artefact could not be pried from my hand for several days. In fact I took it to bed and held it in my hand when I went to sleep the first night I had it. The plowed fields around our farm in Apalachin held many small rounded pebbles of Onondaga chert. I often would pick these small pieces of glacial till up and attempt to make arrow heads out of them. At the time my favorite tool was a pair of fencing pliers. I was never very successful and my life led me on to other things, but in the recesses of my mind lingered a desire to learn more about these things. As my son, Peter learned to read I would often take him to the local library in the evenings and while he perused the children’s books I discovered the archaeology section, which I read from one end to the other.

OK, so now the theory:

The bannerstone was used as a spindle weight to make string to tie on fletching and points , and 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.

We have a model for the use of the bannerstone 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. In an experiment I contributed to with Erica Tideman of 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 takes me to produce one foot of hand made cordage (I am very adept at it) I can make three yards of thread on the bannerstone spindle whorl.

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 Mercyhearst College with Cathy Pedler and several of her students at a dig 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.

When you consider the fact that the bannerstone is difficult to make, and balanced in its design so that is dynamically concentric. It was obviously designed to spin in whatever its function was. In its use as an atlatl weight there exists several problems in its practicality.

First and foremost is that atlatls do not spin. The size of the holes in bannerstones are variable from 1/4 inch to over an inch with most of them being about the expected diameter of a typical dart. A quarter inch atlatl shaft is too small and a one inch shaft to large. (Almost all atlatl shaft sizes all lie within an expected parameters which is about on the average one half to a quarter square inch in cross section. The average of cross sections of the 150+ or so broken bannerstones in Gary Fogelman’s collection is a fifth to a sixth of an inch. Too close to call but a significant difference. We examined wear patterns in Gary Fogelman’s collection of broken banner stones. Many have wear patterns that are consistent with the use that I am proposing. Some of the banerstones had been broken and repaired in ancient times literally being sewn back together.

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.

Although my experiments and the evidence is 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 to a hunter using an atlatl in stone age America.

Copyright 2004

Fishing With Atlatls On The Rainbow River In Florida

Fifty-five inch gar landed.

The sun turned the sky to brilliant red as it sank beneath the tree line along the western shore of the Rainbow River. In the evening calm the clear water was glass smooth. I held my atlatl and harpoon dart ready in hopes I would get a clear shot at a fish. We could see occasional ripples cross the water around us, telling of fast moving small fish attempting to escape the clutches of some of the larger predatory species. But the sun reflecting off the top of the water kept everything below the surface hidden from view.

We talked for a while, waiting for the darkness to settle in. In the distance vultures coming in from every direction landed in a giant cypress tree that grew out of the shallow water of the flats. A symphony of alligators chortled in every tone belying their various sizes from small to very large. Earlier that day we had seen several large alligators sunning themselves on fallen logs. We weren’t here for alligators but anywhere you see gators you will see gar.

To spear gar with an atlatl you have to be able to see them well and they need to be in reasonably shallow water. At night with the Colman lanterns we have rigged to the bows of our boats you can see the gar as deep as twenty five feet swimming along like submarines barely wavering from their characteristic straight line course. You can see the inverted crossbows that we just purchased, they are great bows. The skin of a gar is like armor with the texture of rough sandpaper. To get a dart through this you need sharp points and enough energy to break through a quarter inch of bone like skin. It can be done with a bow but the arrow looses energy much faster than a harpoon dart. The added length and weight of the dart allow deeper penetration of the water, with enough energy left to penetrate the thick hide of the gar.

Leggs spotted the first giant gar as we entered a lagoon. He was not ready for it but I was. I had to cast at just at the right time to make the shot. I hit it right in the middle of its five foot long body and it took off. I let the line go as it retreated until I had nothing left but the float at the end of my line. I hung on as the fish dragged the boat several hundred yards. As the fish tired I pulled it closer to the boat. Leggs, being the bravest of us gaffed it into the boat. It slashed with its razor teeth just scratching the back of Leggs’ hand. He stowed it under the deck where it could not hurt us after we took several pictures.

It is an annual event for us to go to Florida in the middle of February to enjoy our atlatl adventures. We meet at Payne’s Prairie Campground where the annual Knap-in occurs. The park has great facilities and is perfectly situated for us to be able to go to the various places in North Florida to hunt and fish with our atlatls. Also Florida’s fish and game laws allow the use of the atlatl.

The sun drops below the treeline.
The sun drops below the treeline.

Red sky at night, sailor's delight.
Red sky at night, sailor's delight.

First atlatl shot with a harpoon...
First atlatl shot with a harpoon…

And first big gar, harpooned with an atlatl.
And first big gar, harpooned with an atlatl.

Fifty-five inch gar landed.
Fifty-five inch gar landed.

Andy with his gar. That's Micah behind him.
Andy with his gar. That's Micah behind him.

Combining Modern Gadgets with Ancient Weapons for Hunting and Fishing

Some new Possibilities for Sportsmen:

We kept our atlatls ever ready, searching the depths for Talapia, the boat gliding slowly across the dark waters on that moonless night.

Among the weeds in the deep, clear water, we made out shapes of various creatures. Some were alligators; most were Gar or Bass, lingering in spaces between the lumpy masses of algae. They were all well lit by lamps fastened to the bottom of a shooting platform on the bow of Wooly’s boat.

Sometimes we could make out strange animals like rays, and an occasional Plecostemus, an overgrown algae eating escapee from someone’s aquarium. Painted turtles with multicolored shells sometimes materialized, only to quickly disappear into the green masses at the bottom of the stream.

We were fishing the pristine North Florida waters, which flow in a stream, from Salt Spring to Lake George. The harpoon tips of our darts were fastened to a 12-inch foreshaft and inserted into the large end of a six-foot ash shaft.

The shallow dimple on the dart’s back end rests against a small bone hook at the end of the atlatl. The atlatl is a two-foot long device that helps the shooter to propel his harpoon deep into the water. Atlatl darts penetrate the water to a depth of 10 or 12 feet, whereas arrows shot from a bow barely go half that deep.

Now and then, Leggs or I would shoot into the water at the quickly fleeing Talapia. Talapia, another fish transplanted to Florida waters, appear dark blue beneath the water. They also have a fairly scaly body. Wooly, a.k.a. Wendell Adams, navigated with the low power electric trolling motor as we went, while Wooly operated a high-powered portable halogen lamp, lighting things of interest in the stream’s unbelievably clear waters. It was a little noisy with the Honda generator’s constant hum. Our catch for the night was a Catfish, a few Gar and a Plecostemus.

In 2002, we hunted fish in the Rainbow River that flows into the Gulf of Mexico on the opposite side of the State of Florida. I managed to land a 53″ Gar. It was the second large Gar I shot. The first one, which was much bigger, broke the dart and got away. We also got two nice sized Bowfin, a rather formidable predatory fish, with teeth as sharp as those of the gar.

What a contrast of equipment: high tech electric motors and lights for the purpose of hunting fish with the ancient spear throwing weapon called the atlatl. Such is the interesting, on going evolution of the atlatl. The atlatl is a weapon, that only a dozen years ago was relegated to museums, the backyards, and college quads of a few archaeologists who would bring out the implement to demonstrate it to students.

For those who are not familiar with the atlatl, it is an ancient weapon that predates the bow and arrow.

The atlatl is a handle measuring approximately the length of the thrower’s arm that hooks into the back of a large arrow-like spear commonly called a dart, or when fishing, a harpoon.

The handle amplifies the power and the accuracy of the thrower by allowing him to apply power to the dart over a longer period of time.

I’ve seen darts that were anywhere from about four to eight feet long, with most of them being six or seven. In my experience, hunting darts work best if they are long and heavy, and made from hardwood such as ash. For hunting I use seven-foot darts that weigh about eight ounces. They are fletched with full-length turkey wing feathers and pointed either with stone or steel. I often use stone points for aesthetic reasons.

Many atlatlists who shoot target darts prefer cane shafts that are half the weight of hunting darts. I tend to shy away from the light stuff because it affects my hunting when I change to the higher weight.

I use a braided 200-pound test line on my harpoon darts that is about 30 yards long, attached to a small float that I keep in my pocket. I hold the line loosely in my left hand so I can play it out when I shoot.

Atlatls resurfaced in earnest about a dozen years ago as small groups of atlatl wielding enthusiasts started finding each other, through the Internet, The World Atlatl Association, and at knap-ins. Knap-ins are gatherings where people get together to make flint arrowheads. (A phenomenon in its own right.) The World Atlatl Association is an organization that has four or five hundred members who get together for competitions and other events, with the objective of furthering the knowledge and use of atlatls.

The art of hunting and fishing with atlatls was virtually lost as a cultural expression to the world, except to a few scattered indigenous people where its use has lingered, until several people from Michigan, New York, Kentucky, and Georgia came together with the idea of trying atlatls out on wild boar.

Lou Becker of Michigan was the first person I knew to kill a wild pig with an atlatl. His efforts lit a few fuses and the explosion was on. I took the baton next and experimented with atlatls and darts that were designed to work well for taking down wild boar and deer. It took several years to come up with equipment that worked well. We tried both flint and steel points. Both worked well, but the discovery that made the most difference in our success was finding the right combination of length, weight, material, fletching and diameter for our darts.

I have hunted a lot of different ways in my life, but my all time favorite way to hunt is with an atlatl. I enjoy the whole experience of it, from knapping the flint points and hafting them with traditional handmade cordage to tracking the animal after its been hit. I like the excitement of getting close to the prey and trying to figure out how to get the best shot. I enjoy the hours of solitude, sitting high above the forest floor in a tree stand or the act of silently stalking a wild boar through a swamp. It’s also fun to relate the stories of my deeds and misdeeds with the atlatl. (I have more stories about my misdeeds.)

I guess one reason I get such a thrill out of atlatl hunting is that I can manage to harvest fish or big game animals with a weapon that is both simple and effective. The atlatl has the power to bring me back to my primal roots, letting me use my instinctive skills to feed my family and myself. I find incredible satisfaction in doing that, gaining an immense sense of self-confidence and accomplishment.

Deer and wild boar hunting offer the most challenge. Both can be hunted from the ground or from a tree stand with an atlatl and the hunter needs to practice different throwing techniques for each. The difference is that you cannot typically take a full step into your shot from a tree stand, whereas from the ground you can shift your entire weight into the shot.
The distance that I am comfortable shooting at large game is less than 20 yards. The closer the better. The close distance requirement is a major factor that makes atlatl big game hunting so challenging yet so interesting and exciting. It takes a lot of skill to get that close to deer and wild boar.

I have spent hours on my hands and knees crawling in the underbrush to get closer to a heard of wild boar, only to have them discover me and scatter seconds before I could get a good shot off. I have also had deer so close to me that I could almost touch them with the tip of my dart. I have touched alligators with the tip of my dart in an act of counting coup, like the Indians, because we didn’t have a permit at the time to take an alligator. Once I accidentally shot a 5-foot alligator when attempting to shoot a gar. We released the alligator only slightly wounded in the tail. It was however an interesting event that proved to me that alligators could be harvested with an atlatl.

Success rates with the atlatl are fairly good, if the hunter is willing to put in some time practicing. It has been my experience that if you feel confident when you go out in the morning on your atlatl hunt you will make that critical shot. It’s the same with any weapon, I suppose. Practice and confidence, coupled with a desire to succeed will get you to the place you need to be to take your quarry.

A small group of intrepid atlatl hunters gathered in Moundville, Alabama the spring of 2002 to plan and execute hunting forays into the deep, dark backwaters of the hog infested swamps of the Tombigbee River Basin. Since then we have had many success stories to tell.

Several people in our small group have been looked over aerial photographs and topographical maps, checking out likely places to hunt. Hunting parties composed of members of our group tentatively calling themselves the Alabama Atlatl Hunting Association, formed up at the Moundville Archaeological Park, and headed out to either scout for or hunt wild boar. We plan to do a little atlatl rough fishing in the process.

We chose Alabama as one of our hunting venues because it is legal to hunt deer and wild boar there with an atlatl. It is also legal to hunt wild boar in several other states such as Texas, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, and possibly several others. Before hunting with an atlatl check with your local authorities.

This sport may be far from the mainstream of outdoor activities, but every person on the face of the planet probably had in his or her background an ancestor who has survived because of the atlatl or a weapon closely resembling it. Anyone who wants to know more about the atlatl can search the net under the word “atlatl” and find 1500 pages of information about it.

Atlatls in America: A Brief Overview

The word “atlatl” is the Aztec word for spear thrower. Our history in North America was greatly affected by the Native Central Americans’ use of the atlatl.

Bernal Diaz’s account of the conquest of New Spain, what is now Mexico, talked extensively of the use of atlatls by the natives, both those on the side of Montezuma and those who allied themselves with the conquistador Cortez.

Archaeologists and anthropologists both have recorded extensive use of the atlatl by Native Americans, who still were using mostly stone tools and stone tipped projectile weapons at the time of European contact. Atlatls continue to be used today in the Amazon Basin as well as in Alaska. Apparently there has been a resurgence in the use of the atlatl among native Alaskans in the Nome area and in the Aleutians and Kodiak Island.

The Conquest of New Spain (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
by Bernal Diaz del Castillo (Author), John M. Cohen (Introduction, Translator) “BERNAL DIAZ DEL CASTILLO

Venison Recipe

Bone a shoulder of atlatl-harvested venison and cube it. Dredge the cubed venison in egg then coat with brown bread crumbs. Set aside. Boil a half-cup of barley in two cups of water, stir, cover and let stand for 20 minutes. Cube a rutabaga or several turnips; slice a pound of parsnips into narrow strips. Ring two or three onions and crush a half a dozen cloves of garlic. Fry the garlic in a dash of olive oil. Add the onions, and parsnips, then the rutabaga or turnips. Don’t spare the olive oil because the venison is generally fat free. Don’t over cook the vegetables. In a large iron covered pot, sauté the venison until it is just browned but pink on the inside. Add the vegetables, barley, freshly crushed peppercorn, a dash of sea salt and a cup of red wine. Cover the pot and let simmer for 20 minutes. Serve with fresh brown bread and butter. This goes well with a hearty burgundy. Practice your French after the second bottle of wine.