All posts by Bob

Southwestern-Style Spear Throwers Identified in the Ozarks

An atlatl fragment has recently surfaced that was discovered in the Ozarks in Missouri, as reported by Western Digs.

Western Digs Photo of Ozark Atlatl
Western Digs Photo of Ozark Atlatl

New analysis of two spear-throwers excavated nearly a century ago in the Ozark Mountains reveals what one archaeologist calls an “uncanny” similarity to those used in the ancient Southwest and Mesoamerica.

One of the artifacts — an intact carved wooden spear thrower, or atlatl — was first described in the 1920s, when it was found under a rock outcrop known as the Alred Shelter in northwestern Arkansas.
Montgomery Atlatl

The atlatl fragment found at Montgomery Shelters, Missouri, features distinctive notches and lugs for a split-fingered grip. (University of Arkansas Museum Collections)

– Blake de Pastino, Feb 11, 2014

I have postulated that the fragment is only about two thirds of the original spear thrower.

What the rest of the atlatl looks like with an added atlatl weight. Edited with Photoshop.
What the rest of the atlatl looks like with an added atlatl weight. Edited with Photoshop.

The atlatl fragment is only twelve and a half inches long. I believe that the distal portion broke off and was lost. I compared the fragment to several atlatls that I have made and came to the conclusion that the missing end would have looked like what I have depicted in the second picture.

I believe that the slit in the spear thrower would have been used to tie on an atlatl weight, as shown.

I did not depict the loops that would have been attached at the proximal end but it is evident that some kind of finger loop system would have been used on this spear thrower. The finger loops may have been made of leather, plant fiber, bone, shell or hair.

What do you think?

Bob Berg

Harvesting Bamboo for Atlatl Darts in Georgia

Tying the bundles of cane.
Tying the bundles of cane.

Cutting cane on Gardenia Island and Tortuga Island is the high point of the year for me because it is an escape from the torture of Arctic air that we experience this time of the year up here in the snow belt of Upstate New York. It almost seems like spring time when we step onto our favorite island sanctuaries, where bamboo grows like giant stalks of grass waving in the soft warm winds of the Okeefenokee Swamp.

The bamboo grows strong and straight in those parts and makes outstanding dart shafts that fly like the Thunderbird. It takes a lot of hard and careful work to harvest, season, heat treat and straighten these shafts but the effort is worth it. It is always kind of a downer as we travel north through Pennsylvania on our way back and start seeing the snow again. Oh well, it’s back to winter.

bambooo Bob3

bamboo bob2

cane darts after heat straightening

The Development of Thunderbird Atlatl Hunting Darts

I have been making and using hunting darts for use with atlatls for a couple of decades. When a few friends and I started doing this in the early 90s we were aware of the fact that atlatls and darts must have been used for hunting in ancient times but we were unable to find information about how darts were made from living sources.

Determining the Diameter of Darts from the Archaeological Record
When I started designing atlatls and darts in the late 1980s I had very little to go by other than a few books and articles I read at the library. At the time there were few if any people with any atlatl hunting experience to ask how to do it. I found a few other people who were interested in the same task and so we joined forces. Who these alatl pioneers were, is the subject of another article.

Bob Berg of Thunderbird Atlatl has been developing equipment for atlatl hunting since the early 1990s.
Bob Berg of Thunderbird Atlatl has been developing equipment for atlatl hunting since the early 1990s.

We were left to gleaning information from the archaeological record. We started by looking at collections of projectile points that belonged to friends and museums. What we noticed was that there was a large variety of different sizes of points and point styles. We measured the space between the notches on many points and came to the conclusion that darts must have been anywhere from 3/8 to 5/8 inches at the point where they were hafted. Using these measurements, I started making darts of many different diameters.

Establishing the Ideal Diameter to Length Ratio of Darts
Deciding how long to make the darts was accomplished by starting with shafts that were 8 foot long and fletching them. I cut off 2 inches at a time from the front end and cast the darts and noted how far they flew by throwing them on a football field marked for yardage. From that experiment I worked out the optimal diameter to length ratio. Beginning at the small end of the spectrum I noticed that 3/8 inch darts made of hardwoods like maple, ash and cherry wood seemed to work best at lengths like 48 to 54 inches. At the large end of the spectrum darts of 5/8 inch in diameter seemed to work best from 80 to 90 inches long.

Experiments with Wood Types, Tapering and Heat Treating Dart Shafts
A good friend, the late Wendell Adams of Louisville KY helped me rig up a large belt sander to taper darts. We experimented with them on hunting trips in Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Alabama, hunting wild boar with our experimental equipment. The tapered darts we were making at that time were quite difficult to make requiring a lot of hand work. From 2000 until last summer our standard hunting darts were a straight 9/16” by 7 feet ash weighing 8 ounces. We only made tapered darts for those who requested them. Two years ago I built a new dart tapering machine that requires less effort by the operator to rotate the darts.

Improved Hunting Darts
The new version of hunting dart flies better than our previous versions. They are made from pine, 7 foot long, tapered from 9/16ths to 7/16ths inch. They weigh about 6 ounces and have a spine of about 7 pounds. They are faster than the old 8 ounce ash darts but have better penetrating power than ultra-light darts. The pine darts tend to stay straighter than hardwood darts and require less maintenance time keeping them straight. Many of my atlat friends in Europe are using pine shafts, so I thought I would give it a try. Further experiments reveled that heat treating the darts improved stiffness. Experiments that I have done in the last few years, revealed new solutions to the complex problem of balancing weight, spine, taper and the type of wood used.

Seven foot hunting darts manufactured in the Thunderbird Atlatl shop. Darts are shipped with field points for practice. Hunting points are included in the package to be attached when ready for use.
Seven foot hunting darts manufactured in the Thunderbird Atlatl shop. Darts are shipped with field points for practice. Hunting points are included in the package to be attached when ready for use.

Dart Points for Hunting and Practice
Thunderbird Atlatl darts have shaped tips designed to accept field points that can be easily switched to Ace Broadheads. This makes it possible to practice with the same set of darts that will be used for hunting. Our Thunderbird Atlatl dart tips are tapered to fit almost any traditional broadhead on the market so you are not forced to use a proprietary type of point you can only get from one source. If they break when you hit hard objects like rocks or trees, they usually break off just behind the dart point so you lose only 1/2 inch in re-tipping your darts.

The Future of Atlatl Hunting
I doubt that the last word on atlatl hunting darts has been written. It will be through the efforts of people like me who have an undying interest in atlatls, who will take on the task of re-discovering an ancient past through experiment and experiential archaeology. The future of atlatl hunting has been and will be forged by many people who will take up the task of learning the skills necessary to accomplish the goal that I and many of my friends, colleagues and customers have had, which is to develop atlatl hunting so it is universally accepted as one of the many choices that hunters can legally make. As for my own part, I produce atlatl hunting equipment that has evolved and improved over two decades and will continue to be improved.-Bob Berg

Making the Conical Copper Atlatl Dart Point

copper points
The conical copper points that are found in the Great Lakes area of the United States were originally produced by people from The Old Copper Culture. The copper “culture” began as early as 7000 years ago by some estimates so it is likely to have embraced many cultures over dozens of centuries. The conical copper point was used for the entire time so it must have been a very successful design. Not only are they a good design but the color of the copper is beautiful.

My experiments using this style of copper point have proven to me that they are also a very successful modern atlatl dart point design as well. An interesting quality of copper is that it work hardens. As you create the point it makes it very hard and resistant to damage. The tips of copper points will often bend but it is very easy to straighten them out even while you are afield using a couple of rocks; one as a hammer and the other as an anvil.

I have experimented with natural copper nuggets several times but it is rare and expensive to get so I use modern copper sheets to produce the conical copper points I make. The thickness of the copper I start with is usually 1/16” or thicker. I start by cutting triangles of copper with a tin snip that are about 2 ½” long by the diameter of the dart times three and one half. The next step is to hammer the three edges so they taper down to almost paper thinness. The reason for this is that in forming the cone the two sides need to overlap. I use a ball peen hammer and an anvil. In addition to these tools I use a mandrill and a wooden block with a half cone shape carved out that matches the mandrill shape.

After hammering out the edges I anneal the copper in a fire or in the flame of a torch. I then use the mandrill and wood block to begin rolling the cone, and then finish it by hammering the cone around the mandrill. The ancient Old Copper Culture People used mandrills hammered from copper. I use iron mandrills that I make on my metal lathe. I have also used temporary mandrills made of hardwood like Osage or Hard Maple.

Conical points have an added advantage in that they have a very large glue surface area which means that you can use traditional pine resin glue to fasten them onto your dart shaft.

I have had a few darts last several years without the copper points coming off. When copper points are new the tips are so pointy that they will penetrate as well as stone points or broadheads and it is very likely that people of the Old Copper Culture used conical copper points for hunting and fishing.

By Bob Berg

Where do Thunderbird Atlatls get their names from?

Back in the early ’90s when I first started designing atlatls, I was working a carpentry job in Wyalusing, PA. At the time, I was experimenting with atlatls with rests, and ended up creating one of the first original Atlatl designs in a thousand years, and the first official Thunderbird atlatl. I decided to name it the “Wyalusing” after the town I was working in — it was a word of Indian origin, and it had a nice ring to it.

“Wyalusing” comes from Native American words: “Wigalusing” meaning, “the good hunting ground” and “M’chwihilusing” meaning “the place of the hoary veteran.” M’chwihilusing which was the original name of Wyalusing, prior to European settlement.

Over the next year, I designed several other Atlatls and decided to keep with the theme of naming them after local Indian names — towns, rivers, lakes and such. Soon, the Wappasening, the Tioga, the Hiawatha, the Catatonk, and several other designs were born.

We’ve kept up with this trend for the past twenty years, and several other atlatl manufacturers that came after Thunderbird Atlatl seem to have liked this idea as well, and followed suit.

Here’s a map with all of these places plotted out on a map. The red dot in the middle is our shop, and you can see that all of the Indian-named places nearby were our inspiration. Most of them come from Iroquois names – the 6 tribes that made up the Iroquois Confederation were centered around modern day New York State.

-Bob Berg

View Larger Map