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.