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.