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Birdstones - Types & Eye Forms

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  • Birdstones - Types & Eye Forms

    William S. Koup, G.I.R.S. Associate Editor and Richard Sisson, G.I.R.S. Member, with contributions by Steve Fuller, G.I.R.S. Member.

    For over 150 years, birdstones have been objects that have inspired great passion, desire, and collecting zeal among art and artifact collectors. These small but magnificent creations from the hands of prehistoric North American artisans have inspired people from all walks of life to spend decades pursuing these often elusive creations to add to their collections. Fanners, factory workers, plumbers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, and industrialists have all entered into this competitive world in pursuit of another example to add to their collection. A few of these collectors have had the means and wherewithal to collect whatever form of art they desired. It could have been canvasses by famous artists, rare coins, or classic automobiles, but birdstones became the primary objects of their pursuit. Why? It is a fact that birdstones are rare, and rarity breeds a competitiveness to possess. But birdstones retain qualities that are far more sophisticated and cerebral than merely being few in number. Birdstones exemplify some of the highest artistic achievements of the prehistoric North American artisan! Some may argue the same for the entire prehistoric world. It is in this light that the writers, editors, and collectors represented in the pages of this special issue of Prehistoric American hope for a greater understanding and wider appreciation for the exquisite beauty of birdstones.

    Birdstones constitute a form of ancient art distinctive to the peoples who lived in the region of North America largely bounded by the Great Lakes and the watershed of the Ohio River, centered largely in what is now the American Midwest. Ancient peoples of other world regions created artful and expressive effigies, both life-like and abstract, but not birdstones. Birdstones were most surely prized by those who made them and by those who possessed them, given the aesthetic eye, technical skill, and time that was required to create them. Their cultural importance is suggested by the prevalence of salvaged examples, especially heads, that were refinished in ancient times for further ritual employment or ornamental use.

    Systematic consideration of birdstones has been episodic since they were first brought to popular attention in the mid-19th century (Squier and Davis, 1848). This may be explained in part because birdstones have rarely been found in archaeological context. They are usually found on the surface of the ground and along or near bodies of water. Exceptions to this include the range of types found in certain sites of the Glacial Kame and, rarely, the bust types found in Adena and Hopewell mounds. Birdstones have reposed initially and primarily in private collections, and the vast majority from museum collections have been acquired from private collections. Though sporadic, the literature includes a number of important contributions made since the late 19th century (including Moorehead, 1899; Hodge, 1907; Brown, 1909; Johnston, 1954; and Baldwin, et. al., 1982/1983). The most consequential work of which being Earl C. Townsend, Jr.'s, Birdstones of the North American Indian, (1959).

    Our efforts in this article are devoted to developing a birdstone typology that will hopefully help order our thinking and facilitate communication among those who study and appreciate birdstones, as well as those who want to learn more about them. Along with the typology, a discussion of the various types of eyes found on birdstones will be presented.

    I. The Significance of Contributions from the Past

    A common observation from the beginning has been that no two birdstones are alike. They are similar, but not the same. They come in a myriad of shapes, styles, and sizes. They range in the treatment of their body form, their head and neck, and their tail. Some have ridges underneath on the base; others do not. Most are perforated at the base on the front and the back; others are not. Some show considerable wear, while others do not. Many early commentators through Townsend (1959) and Baldwin and Townsend (1982/1983) have observed that there are many birdstones that do not look much like birds at all, but have the appearance of various creatures that roam the earth and cruise its waters. Were one to create a matrix running the range of each of these variables against the others, the result would be uncontrollably complex. Our thought is predicated on the assumption, however, that there exist commonalities in a wide range of birdstones, and it is useful to develop a framework that may facilitate comparison, study, and appreciation.

    Four studies are particularly instructive with respect to defining types of birdstones. An early and elementary attempt to classify birdstones was offered by Moorehead (1899) in the form of "the four or five variations" he envisioned, set forth with a limited number of images, but without incisive description and elaboration. Two decades later he provided marginal elaboration (Moorehead, 1917, p. 81) where he suggested five types:

    1. "the ordinary bird-stone";
    2. "the bird-stone with slender body, neck, and head specialized";
    3. "bird-stone with short body";
    4. "bird-stone with wide body and large ears"; and
    5. "the variations to another type". The formulation suggests a range of long, medium, and short, wide bodies with ears, and others. For an audience that had minimal exposure to birdstones, this provided a useful initiation, but missed much that is distinctive about form and material.

    Similarly Brown (1909), who focused primarily on examples from Wisconsin, suggested four distinct classes of objects: (1) Class A - Bar Form, which essentially was limited to bar amulets; (2) Class B - Bird Form, which included most of all examples at the time known; (3) Class C - Specimens with Eyes; and (4) Class D -Others. It must be noted that neither Moorehead nor Brown had access to a wide reservoir of objects, and relied in many instances on sketches or photographs for their examination. While important as a beginning, these typologies are not sufficiently versatile to enable us to discriminate among the wide range of objects that have now come to be known.

    A third and major contribution is that of LaDow Johnston in his two-part article in the Ohio Archaeologist (1954). Johnston had access to a far wider range of birdstones available for his personal examination than did his predecessors. He indicates having studied 719 Ohio examples out of the approximately 1,200 that he estimated existed, the remainder resting in private and museum collections at the time. While focusing on Ohio examples, he included many from other areas, particularly Indiana and Michigan, in his survey and analysis. In developing his classification, Johnston focused upon general body forms, and suggested that they constitute three types: (1) Type A – "Elongated and being lengthy in comparison to width"; (2) Type B – "Saddle, resembling a western saddle"; and (3) Type C – "Bust, having no body and being about as wide as it is tall or long".

    He also endeavored to categorize the substantial variations with respect to birdstone eyes, in this regard going far beyond considerations previously published. With respect to this important dimension, he offered ten basic types: (1) Indented; (2) Nodular; (3) Conical; (4) Cylindrical; (5) Stemmed Button; (6) Ridge; (7) Top Knot; (8) Globular; (9) Engraved; and (10) Illusory (Johnston, 37-38). Johnston's typology is a most suggestive one, but while lean and parsimonious—both valued qualities—in terms of form it does not account for certain body types normally encompassed by the birdstone family, nor does it attend the critical attributes of material, line, and color. This model, however, constitutes a useful platform from which to build. The fourth major contribution was offered by Townsend in his monumental Birdstones of the North American Indian. He did not propose formal categories, though he did observe at the end of Chapter 2, in response to the claim of some that birdstones were impervious to classification, that it would become quite apparent from examination of the images in his book "… that there are some definite similarities and differences among birdstones that relegate many of them quite readily to classes" (Townsend, 44). Rather than developing an overall set of categories or "classes", Townsend organized all of his examples on the basis of the American states (25) and Canadian provinces in which they were found.

    4. Within each state and province where numerous examples were portrayed (8), he organized them according to the length of body in comparison to its breadth, the "chunkiness" of the body, the length and nature of the point of the nose, the shape and the angle of the tail, the character of the neck, whether ridged underneath, whether perforated or not, the kind of material chosen for use, and other miscellaneous considerations. Each of the Plates contains a particular descriptive type created from a varying combination of the factors just enumerated, while in numerous Plates he describes examples of these effigies as being creatures of the earth and water rather than being forms of birds. What Townsend has provided, along with much else of interest and value, is a multitude of examples for comparison, reference, and study, as well as an exhaustive list of factors that might be employed in their categorization. At the time of this writing, the authors are unaware of anyone able to employ, let alone recite, each particular type Townsend has advanced. His series of descriptions, however, constitute a rich and invaluable reference point for both distillation and elaboration.

    II. Typology of Birdstones: The Range in Body Form and Eyes

    In the hands of collectors, birdstones are easily identifiable for what they are—a birdstone! Usually there is never a question regarding its identity as a birdstone. As discussed above, birdstones come in a myriad of shapes, styles, and sizes that often make them difficult to type or categorize. Discussing and writing about birdstones has been daunting due to the wide variations in types and styles. What one person may call a Nesting Birdstone, another may refer to as a Porphyry Popeye Birdstone, while still another may refer to it as a Saddle Birdstone. For several generations of birdstone collecting, a common but sometimes confusing vernacular has evolved for speaking about and writing about birdstones. Much of this terminology has been meaningful and productive, but some has been vague and confusing. The following birdstone typology is being offered in the hope that it will help clarify and synthesize what has come before. In the past, as now, birdstone attributes have determined the type. The form of the body, shape of the tail, eyes, material, and cultural affiliation have all contributed to the creation of birdstone categories or types.

    That brings us to this question. Should there be a birdstone classification system? Our answer would be "Yes". To have a usable typology or nomenclature in which all can refer to specific examples of birdstones that all will understand is important. It is also important to provide the beginning student and collector of birdstones a frame of reference for learning and speaking about birdstones and their attributes. For the purposes of this issue, the following types have been identified and have been generally accepted into the vernacular of birdstone collecting, discussions, and writing. These types should not be viewed as definitive and/ or comprehensive, but they will be amenable or adaptable for most birdstones.

    It could easily be argued for twice as many named categories, but splitting hairs and adding to an already confusing nomenclature would be counterproductive of our purposes here. Be aware that many birdstones will never conveniently fit into these or any other categories. Many birdstones are combinations of two or more categories. Some are just unique! However, we feel these categories will work well for the majority of birdstones.

    In order for any birdstone classification system to be successful, it must be tactile in character or physically descriptive. In other words, the actual physical characteristics of each individual birdstone should determine the type without regard to the material from which it is constructed. Would a person who is totally blind, but knowledgeable about birdstones, be able to recognize the type of birdstone he is holding without any regard to the material from which it is made? If yes, then the classification system may be deemed a success. Following is an outline of birdstone types with a brief discussion of each.

    It will be quickly noted by many that Glacial Kame has not been named as a type in this system of classification. Glacial Kame is a specific culture and should not be used as a type. Yes, the Glacial Kame people are well known for making magnificent birdstones, many having similar physical characteristics, but far too many of their creations were of distinctly different form so do not allow for the use of the term Glacial Kame as a specific physically descriptive type. It also should be noted that there are certain specific regions in North America that have produced specific styles of birdstones that have been given names attributable to where they were found. These would include Boxheads from the Northeast United States and Ontario, Canada; Southeastern style from Tennessee and North Carolina; Wisconsin style; and others.

    Used by permission of William S. Koup
    Duplicated from the “Resources” section of and reproduced with permission.
    I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.

  • #2
    Types of Birdstones - Definition of Types

    1. Elongated Birdstones

    Elongated Birdstones comprise the vast majority of all birdstones. Perhaps 75% or more of all birdstones will fall into this category. An elongated birdstone is rather simple in form, typically consisting of a head, neck, elongated narrow body, and a tail. Some elongated birdstones were made with special treatment to the neck and to the tail. Because this type contains such a large number of examples, three subtypes of Elongated are required.

    A. Elongated Typical Birdstones

    This may be the most difficult type to define. It is easy to state that a birdstone is typical, but typical is very difficult to define. What is typical? A Typical Birdstone has all of the general attributes and characteristics of a birdstone but does not have distinctive characteristics that would place it into one of the other two categories. It does not have a long, exaggerated neck nor does it have a wide fantail. Therefore, it is Typical. Another way to think about or describe a Typical Birdstone is that it has a "common" form. The use of the word common does not in any way detract from its quality or character. Many Typical Birdstones are superb in workmanship and form. They just happen to have the most often seen features and characteristics of a large percentage of birdstones — a typically shaped head, an elongated narrow body, and a tail. Please note that numerous examples may exhibit some form of eyes.

    Elongated Typical Birdstone, Allen County, Indiana, 574" in length

    B. Elongated Fantail Birdstones

    The Elongated Fantail Birdstone exhibits a head with or without eyes, a long narrow body, and an expanding tail. A Fantail would be any tail that is wider at the top than at the bottom of the tail or the base of the birdstone. Examples would range from those that are only slightly wider at the top to extreme examples that measure in the two inch range. Some examples may also exhibit the characteristics of the Long Neck Birdstone discussed below.

    Elongated Fantail Birdstone, Oakland County, Michigan, 678" in length

    C. Elongated Long Neck Birdstones

    The Elongated Long Neck Birdstone exhibits a head with or without eyes, a long narrow body and a tail. Where this type differs is in the treatment of the neck. When the length of the neck exceeds the length of the head the birdstone may be described as a Long Neck Birdstone. This may be defined as the measurement from the bottom front of the base to the approximate and neck. Birdstones from the Northeast United States and Ontario, Canada that are commonly referred to as "Boxheads" would routinely fit into this category.

    Elongated Long Neck Birdstone, Sandusky County, Ohio 4 5/8" in length

    2. Saddle Birdstones

    Another highly descriptive name that has long been used in the nomenclature of birdstones is the Saddle Birdstone. Looking at a western style horse saddle from the side closely approximates the curves that one would see while viewing Saddle Birdstones from the side. Saddle Birdstones generally have an elevated curvature of the tail and head; however, the tail may sometimes extend straight back with no elevation. Saddle Birdstones have a body width that is greater than the height of the body. This type will generally have a distinct medial ridge that will extend from the tip of the tail and forward to the tip of the beak or head. A casual observation of this type indicates that the wider the body, the straighter the tail. Examples of this type will almost always have eyes, and they may be made from any type of material.

    Saddle Birdstone, Calhoun County, Michigan, 378" in length

    3. Bust Birdstones

    Like an ancient Roman sculpture of the bust of an emperor, the Bust Birdstone is very similar. The Roman sculpture features a head, a neck, and shoulders (base). A Bust Birdstone is basically the same: a head, neck, and base. Numerous Bust Birdstones are not perforated, but when they are, the perforations are made from the base upward at both the front and the rear. The form of the base varies from round, oval, and teardrop to somewhat square in form. The norm for Bust Birdstone eyes tends toward cylindrical eyes, but other types exist. It is probably true that all Bust Birdstones were meant to have eyes, however, prehistoric breakage and salvage have taken their toll on many.

    Bust Birdstone, Allegan County, Michigan 3/4" in length

    4. Chunky Birdstones

    Although not the most glamorous name for a birdstone type, it is certainly very descriptive of this very easily identifiable type, and the term has been in common usage for generations. The term "chunky" refers to the heavy structure or character of the body of these birdstones. The body of Chunky Birdstones from the neck to the tail is generally much wider and higher than Elongated Birdstones. The heads are generally small. Generally, the overall length is less than that of Elongated and Long Neck types. Also the weight or mass of Chunky Birdstones frequently exceeds that of other types even though the overall dimensions are smaller. Although Chunky Birdstones often do not have eyes, there are many that do. Numerous examples exhibit eyes that are drilled. Sometimes the drilling is so shallow that the eyes are difficult to discern. Incised mouths are also frequently seen on Chunky Birdstones.

    Chunky Birdstone, Kosciusko County, Indiana, 3" in length

    5. Animal Form Birdstones

    Animal Form Birdstones are relatively easy to identify and define. As their name implies, this birdstone type has definite characteristics that equate them to various animals other than birds. Although these birdstones have some identifying characteristics to recognizable animals, they almost never have enough identifiers to be able to state emphatically that it is without doubt a certain animal. Often the animal characteristics seen on these birdstone appear whimsical or even bizarre. Generally, Animal Form Birdstones will fall into one of two groups.

    A. Animal Gorget Type

    Bodies of the somewhat rare Animal Gorget Birdstone group are usually oval in form. They also have a low flattened profile. Many are similar to an oval shaped gorget but exhibit a head and sometimes a tail. However, some have a body form that gently rises from the rear up to the head. Gorget Birdstones are generally perforated in gorget fashion with two holes usually finished in the Adena style by drilling from the bottom up with slight counter-sinking from the top, thus leaving perforations having a much larger diameter on the bottom.

    Animal Gorget Birdstone, Delaware County,Ohio, 4 1/4" in length

    B. Animal Elevated Type

    This type will generally have a more typical birdstone form than the Gorget Birdstones. They will usually have perforations at the front and rear within the Typical Birdstone norms. This group would include a very wide range of animalistic forms. Some of these forms are quite unusual and unique. Others are more realistic, often resembling recognizable animal characteristics such as those found in beavers, squirrels, bears, turtles, and other animals.

    Animal Elevated Birdstone made of pipestone, Crawford County, Ohio, 3/8" in length

    Used by permission of William S. Koup
    Duplicated from the “Resources” section of and reproduced with permission.
    I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.


    • #3
      Birdstone Eye Types

      Definition Of Birdstone Eyes

      The majority of birdstones were made without eyes. A rough estimate would be that only about one-third of all birdstones have some form of eyes. However, those birdstones that do have eyes can be very different in character and style. The following terminology for referring to eye treatment seems to be common in both the written literature and in the common vernacular when discussing birdstones. This terminology will be used when discussing birdstones within the text of this issue and in photograph captions.


      Popeyes represent the most dramatic type of eyes. In the past, the term popeyes has been used in a generic fashion to describe almost any type of eye that protrudes above the surface of the head. In an effort to clarify this terminology, the following definition is proposed. Popeyed birdstones have eyes that begin as contracting stems and terminate in flared round or oval discs. Ridges on the underside of the stems may or may not be present. In the past, popeyes have often been referred to as button eyes due to their resemblance to military style coat buttons.

      Saddle Birdstone having popeyes and sharply defined ridges on the underside of the contracting eye stems, Miami County, Ohio.


      The concentric circle pattern of the banded slate terminates in the eye area of the head to create the illusory effect of eyes or pupils. When this type of eye occurs, it is usually on one side of the head only. This area may also be slightly raised or humped.

      Typical Elongated Birdstone exhibiting concentric circle eyes, Jay County, Indiana.


      Cylindrical eyes are basically round cylinders protruding from the birdstone head and do not flare or expand to any significant degree. Cylindrical eyes may be thin and delicate or thick and heavy in structure. The length of cylindrical eyes varies.

      Saddle Birdstone having cylindrical eyes that are heavy in structure, Calhoun County, Michigan.


      Nodular eyed birdstones have small rounded protuberances in the eye area resembling low, gently rounded mounds.

      Elongated Fantail Birdstone having nodular eyes, Montcalm County, Michigan.


      Conical eyes taper from the head and terminate in a rounded or pointed cone shape. Conical eyes may also exhibit a "pinched-up" effect. This type of eye treatment may blend into the concentric circle type of eye.

      Elongated Typical Birdstone exhibiting conical eyes, Kent County, Ontario, Canada.


      Ridged eyes on birdstones are rare. They have a protruding and usually sharp raised ridge that runs from the top of the head to the juncture between the neck and the head. Ridged eyes may sometimes encircle the entire head or beak.

      Elongated Long Neck Birdstone having ridged eyes, Milwaukee County, Wisconsin.


      Drilled eyes are usually lightly made concave drillings into the side of the head. Typically this type of eye is small and sometimes barely discernable.
      Another rare type of eye treatment should at least be mentioned. Incised eyes are those that have been scratched or etched into the eye area of the birdstone head. This type of eye treatment is seldom seen and tends not to appear on the finest examples of the art. The incisions in the eye area of the head may be very crude in contrast to the overall character of the birdstone, leading one to speculate the incisions/scratches were made by another person at a later time. (No examples were available for illustrative purposes.)

      Chunky Birdstone having drilled eyes and an incised mouth, Kosciusko County, Indiana.

      In summation, it is hoped that the definitions identified above regarding birdstone typology and the treatment of eyes will be helpful in the future discussion of birdstones. By using terminology that is in direct correlation to the physical attributes of these artistic creations a commonality of language will hopefully ensue. A final caveat must once again be noted. Birdstone types may blend from one type to another, and the treatment of eyes also blends from one type to another. Many superb examples of birdstones exist that have blending body form types or blending types of eyes.

      Used by permission of William S. Koup
      Duplicated from the “Resources” section of and reproduced with permission.
      I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.