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

39 thoughts on “Bannerstones And How They Relate To The Atlatl”

  1. I just ran across your website – I am a surface hunter who has found a couple of small bannerstone wings but has never found a whole bannerstone – I never really had any realistic hopes of every finding a whole one so have not paid much attention to them, other than to think they were beautiful – however, my interest in bannerstones has just been renewed by a beautiful new book out by Jim Bennett – I went hunting on the internet and came across you site – I just wanted to comment that I am sitting here nodding my head in agreement of your assessment that, basicly, the bannerstone was not a weight for an atlatl – through the years somewhere in the back of my mind I never felt comfortable with the common acceptence of what a bannerstone was made to be used for – Fogelman, of course, would not agree – but then, well, never mind – anyway, I just wanted to let you know that there is at least one other person out there that sees the possibilities of uses for the bannerstone other than the atlatl – by the way, I am a 66 yr old white haired old lady who hunts IN/KY flood plains along the Ohio and who once had the joy of running the Mississippian site Angel Mounds, located in Evansville, Indiana – enjoy!

  2. Thanks for your comments. We appreciate them. We need to keep better track of our comments – just found this one!

  3. Have you ever seen a bannerstone banded slate tube style with the shaft still intact? I was wondering what the value would be on such an item.

  4. I have a bannerstone which my great grandfather plowed up in a field near Danville, Illinois. It’s a complete double-notched slate butterfly bannerstone; Middle Archaic Style 6,500-5,500 B.P. I have scanned it and can upload a pic if you’ll tell me how!

  5. I was a fan to other site similar to yours they were writing very good articles about this topic but some day they just gone and after that I started looking for other source to get information until now that a find your site and your number 1 reader. Please do not go away!

  6. I just found my first bannerstone last week i dont realy know much about it its green it has swirls in it with a hole all the way through

  7. Please contact me Robert if you get the time. I have spent countless hours debating this topic with myself…. Arguing with myself. BUT I am now convinced that there is absolutely no way many of these bannerstones were weights. Regarding the diameter of the drilled hole there are smaller drilled banners most of which are within 1/8 inch of each other. These I believe we’re a gauge and holder for foreshafts helping to haft a point to the foreshafts. Foreshafts could be managed easily by one person using a bannerstones to hold it stable. Winged banners work well held between the knees and those ground flat on bottom could be sat upright with the foreshafts held firmly for work. The significance of the hole is its use as a gauge for foreshaft diameter and the hole in the bone receiver on the main shaft. The bone receiver would be drilled the same diameter as the holes in the banner. Incidentally the marrow cavity of the humerus and the femur of white tails is nearly identical in diameter of the average small drilled bannerstones.

  8. Large drilled banners are usually smaller and may have been used as gauges for the main dart shaft. Some of the more streamlined banners I think could have possibly been a component of a flexible Atl atl or even a compound form. Unless the thrower was flexible I cannot see a weight as adding velocity to the weapon and I still question even this concept. I’m convinced like you guys that bannerstones were used as a gauge for shaft diameters and as holders and tools for making and repairing darts.

  9. Hello Mr Berg, I just ran across your essay on bannerstones and their use. You may be correct in your assessment that bannerstones were not atlatl weights, but in my opinion there is nothing that would disqualify these obects from being used as atlatl weights for the purpose of a balance mechanism. I have made dozens of atlatls using the configuration shown in Webb’s book on excavations at Indian Knoll, and I find that these weights are very handy in achieving an ideal balance in the dart/thrower system when one wants to change the size or weight or length of the dart.. I have made and used mostly double notched butterfly banners of different sizes and weights as found in the archaeological record (mostly because I like the way they look) As an old guy used to throwing things, i dont’t find the weight range of most of these objects to be a detriment to use as atlatl weights ‘ but I do find that their use standardizes my throw from one size dart to another when using the same atlatl.\, especially when using one shaft in conjunction wit a variety of foreshaft weights and lengths. Given the wide range of size in the mega fauna being hunted in North America during the height of bannerstone production I would be surprised if there were not a wide variety of styles and sizes being found in this artifact type! I think it quite likely that bannerstones had multiple uses when necessity arose. Just my two cents, Louis Jones

  10. Hi Louis, Thanks for your comments. While there is nothing that would disqualify bannerstones from being used as atlatl weights it is hard for me to grasp why, weight being the only quality that seems to be useful as an accessory to atlatls, do they have so many other qualities that make them seem like something else?

  11. Do you have a video of your using banner stone to make twine or shafts? As a novice it was hard to follow your description. I saw my first banner stone at the TN state museum and was fascinated.

  12. Hey! I am an old, but still amateur, archeologist who has had a lifelong interest in archeology, anthropology, and artifact hunting in general. In college I majored in Geology, minored in Biology, and virtually ‘everything scientific’ was always my ‘Forte’!! Your explanations of what ‘Banner stones’ ,and functions were; “BY FAR”, is the most logical and intelligent premise that I have ever had the pleasure of studying! I have found out in my research and investigations of virtually “ALL” scientific fields boils down to “Simplicity”!! Ancient man ‘HAD’ to be very simple, practical, and focused in on how he was going to survive in a very hostile environment that he lived in. Most of these “CEREMONIAL” explanations for such items as banner stones, and bird stones ,can be explained by simple “common sense”! Ancient Indians had to definitely use a practical outlook, versus something that might be labeled “Ceremonial”? Ceremonial might be “OKAY” if all of your basic needs are taken care of, and you and your family are not struggling to make “ends meet”; so to speak? Scientists often get a little too “cutesy” in their research explanations of undocumented findings in this very interesting field of study. Basic “needs” will explain at least 99% of all archeological mysteries in my opinion.

    Thanks, Jan Chapel. in Dothan Alabama

  13. Hi Cheryll, I just saw your comments from over a year ago on my bannerstone post; All i can say is that in my opinion as a professional artist is that the human need to experience and produce beauty is quite often expressed in the making of those tools, weapons, and adornments that one works with on a regular basis, even when those items are commonplace, but especially when those items deal with issues of survival, social status, or the spiritual.All this is speculative , of course, but I don’t think it is just coincidence that virtually all notched banner stones I have seen are made from beautifully figured and colored glacial slate. I have made replicas of some of these banner stones using ancient methods, and believe me, it took no real pressure to convince me to switch over to modern tools. I suspect that many of the artifacts we see had multiple uses if their form was appropriate for a given set of uses, but given the time and labor needed to produce a banner stone, i would want it to be beautiful when it was finished, and if, given social norms, restrictions,and taboos it could be used for both hunting, spinning, or sizing a shaft, i would say go for it. just another two cents, Louis

  14. Hello, My name is Dr. Edward Hall Anthro/Arch.,Genetic Prof. I will start this date manufacturing a bannerstone. I have a theory regarding same. Will keep you in the loop. With Respect, Doc.

  15. What about a spear weight? To make them more forceful. They were meant to fly. The torque design was an improvement for accuracy on the winged bannerstone. Also what is a difficult thing to make? A spear. Long straight pieces of wood aren’t easy to come by or make. If one were to break one it would be prudent to reuse or repair them. A long bannerstone with tree sap. The different amount of working correspond to how much it was used. They would refine them between hunts. Also the birdstone effigy was a fancy way to add weight & a blessing or good luck to a throw. (Birds fly, the stone would too)

  16. The mystery continues…banner stones; They are indeed weights and not fishing net weights or just for decoration during ceremonies. Indians spent countless hours crafting, polishing and embellishing things that provided them with food and or protection. The misleading name “bannerstones” as scholars have come to call these highly polished artifacts but let’s get some direction here, they were NOT used as part of the Atlatl handle as a counter weight or silencing device or part of some foot held drilling guide or means for making cordage so let’s put all those theories to bed. The “Boat Stone” however WAS used for the purpose of balancing an Atlatl set and was positioned and attached to the handle according to the throwers personal preference. As if it were not already confusing enough, over the years too many unrelated items have been labeled into this “bannerstone” class of artifacts probably with the intent to increase the value of the item. Extremely high prices were placed on these rare items at auctions years ago and this caused a flood of fakes that further confused everybody as to their true use by the American Indians because all kinds of shapes and sizes were produced and sold as authentic items. I will write a paper on this subject and post it online to revel the actual purpose of these items and also rename them so that they can be forever removed from the “Bannerstone” class of unknown artifacts.

    – Carlos

  17. Hello Carlos, In several dig site’s I have been responsible over we have found a few large animal vertebrae which have the centers bored out. The age of site 3000 ( +-). Could these be banner stones? With Respect, Doc. Hall (S.Eastern US)

  18. In early July after torrential rains, I went fossil hunting. I found what I though what looked a propeller. I had no idea what it was. I knew it was stone and I knew it was ancient. I brought it to a local archaeologist who said it was a complete pristine Archaic Bannerstone. The amazing thing is that this bannerstone still had wood in between the hole. The wood specimen has been removed and part of it is being tested for carbon data to find a possible date of its last use. Truly an amazing find and my first artifact EVER! Love to show pictures if I could!

  19. Thank you! Recent data returned a conventional calculated radiocarbon age of 4180 +/- 30 BP… I have emailed you some photos of my find!

  20. I have been handed down a banner stone that I feel is museum quality. Is there someone who can help validate the type and material to which the stone was made of . It was found in wabash county Illinois. My email address is qcnick @ would be glad to send picture’s.

  21. I found a broken bannerstone in Southern Illinois that had part of the hole and a hole drilled opposite way. Beautiful material!! I agree with the spindle drill idea. I’m 42 years old and started hunting when I was 5 years old and have found alot of artifacts and my brother and close friends have also.

  22. I have my grandfather’s collection of banner stones found in Tennessee. I’m 62 and have fond memories of hunting arrowheads with him as a kid.

  23. Finding arrowheads and checking out other people’s and museum’s collections of artifacts is the way a lot of us got interested in using the atlatl. Thanks for your comment. It is great to have those memories.

  24. In 1963 my dad was squirrel hunting as a 10 year old boy for the family. Along an old logging road in southwestern NC, after a heavy rain in late Febuary, he discovered a banner stone sticking out of the bank.
    What is unique, is that both sides are covered in glyphs or inscriptions. It’s made of soapstone. Has any one else seen or heard of the same?

  25. Thanks Cheryl, would you know of some visible examples on-line. Maybe a link?
    Thank you for your time, and response..

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