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Bannerstone Usage Theories

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  • Bannerstone Usage Theories

    This feature reprinted from PREHISTORIC AMERICAN Vol. XXIV, No. 4, 1990 pages 14-16.

    What's it for? If you own a bannerstone, you've heard the question. Usually these are the first words uttered when a non collector examines a bannerstone. This is only natural, for who wouldn't want to know what use these beautiful artistic creations had. Unfortunately, a definitive answer is not yet available. Over the years, numerous researchers have tackled the problem of bannerstones, only to walk away from their efforts still not knowing for sure what they had been studying.

    People have long been fascinated by bannerstones. Their greatest appeal is due to their desirability as an art form. Bannerstones were made in the Archaic period in a myriad of types and styles. Many of the ultimate-design specimens are true masterworks of non-representational art.

    Who can resist the appeal of a quartz butterfly or the delicate symmetry of a highly developed double crescent? Yes, they are definitely artistic creations, but most of us are not satisfied to dismiss them as merely beautiful creations of prehistoric man. We have a great desire for a better understanding of these fascinating stone creations with the mysterious drilled holes.

    The term bannerstone has been used for well over a century now. In Gates P. Thurston's 1890 Antiquities of Tennessee, he uses the term "bannerstone" when he states "they were doubtless, used as ornaments or symbols upon occasions of ceremony". Warren K. Moorehead uses the term in his 1900 Prehistoric Implements and states, "most if not all appear to have been designed either as ornaments, or emblems, or insignia. They are made from the handsomest available material and form conspicuous features in all large collections". Later, in the same publication, Moorehead states, "if we deal with facts absolutely we cannot tell for what purpose these (bannerstones) were used". By 1910, Moorehead was lumping bannerstones and other unexplained objects under the heading of "problematical" which defined, very loosely, means--"I don't know what it is?"

    In 1921, John L Baer reported three crescent shaped slate bannerstones found in North Carolina. All three banners were mounted on the ends of slate shafts which were approximately one foot long. This lends credence to the early theories that bannerstones were ceremonial objects indicative of high rank. Unfortunately, there is little other evidence to support this conclusion.

    In 1916, Clarence B. Moore published his findings from excavations done at Indian Knoll along the Green River in Ohio County, Kentucky. He found several bannerstones in association with antler hooks. From his findings Moore surmised that the bannerstones were net spacers and the hooks were netting needles. Based on Moore's findings Dr. George H. Pepper of the Heye Foundation suggested that the hooks and banner-stones were used in conjunction with each other as hair ornaments.

    In 1938, William S. Webb returned to the Green River in Ohio County, Kentucky to conduct excavations at the Chiggerville Site, which was about three miles from Indian Knoll. In burial 44, Webb found a butterfly bannerstone made from what he describes as ferruginous chert and an atlatl hook. Based on Moore's work and his own work here and in Alabama, Webb proposed the theory that bannerstones were used as atlatl (spearthrower) weights placed between a handle and a bone or antler hook. This theory has been widely accepted by professional archaeologists and persists to this day as the most common explanation for the usage of bannerstones.

    In 1939, Byron Knoblock published his monumental Bannerstones of the North American Indian. Although Knoblock's theories on antiquity and the evolution of all bannerstone forms from one primary form is dated and probably invalid, his system of placing all bannerstones within a named group is masterful. By studying the lines and planes of bannerstones, Knoblock developed a system of terminology where every bannerstone can be categorized and named. This has been invaluable to collectors and researchers alike due to the fact that we can all "speak the same language" in regards to bannerstones.

    Knoblock stuck with the older theories on the usage of bannerstones. He believed they were ornamental or ceremonial objects. His conclusions were based partly on the fact that certain forms of bannerstones were usually made from exotic and beautiful material, such as ferruginous quartz or highly banded slate. He also felt that the time expended in making bannerstones, coupled with their fragile nature, would certainly negate their usage as utilitarian objects.

    Throughout the 1940's, William S. Webb continued publishing reports on his findings in Kentucky and Alabama. In them, Webb further refined and expanded his theory that bannerstones were atlatl weights placed between an antler or bone hook and a handle. His research was so convincing that nearly all professionals accept his work as gospel. However, in her excellent and objective look into Webb's research, Mary L. Kwas has made some interesting observations. In looking at Webb's work at Indian Knoll she found that out of the total of 880 burials only 43 contained any kind of atlatl object. Of these 43 burials, only 2 contained a bannerstone, hook and handle. One burial contained a bar weight, hook and handle. Kwas also noted a very conspicuous lack of points found in the burials with atlatl objects. Perhaps, she pointed out, this was due to the usage of organic materials which did not survive. However, she noted that of the 45 burials with atlatl objects, only 5 had associated projectile points. Kwas seems to be saying that Webb's research should be considered more carefully and that his atlatl weight theory should not be taken as the ultimate answer to the usage of bannerstones.

    In 1955, Byron Knoblock responded to Webb's theory by asking several pointed questions. Why are axes and celts far more plentiful than bannerstones? Why aren't arrowheads or spearpoints found in burials with atlatl parts? Why are many bannerstones so fragile and others so large and cumbersome? Why are banner-stones found in burials with women and children? He concludes his attack by rejecting the notion that bannerstones, birdstones and boatstones were all used as utilitarian objects.

    Also, in her excellent overview of bannerstones, Mary L. Kwas summarized some of the experiments done with bannerstones attached to atlatls. J. Walker Davenport did experiments by moving bannerstones to different positions on the atlatl, but could find no help or hindrance one was or another. In 1960, Orville Peets felt that bannerstones helped balance the atlatl, but did not find that they increased distance. Clayton Mau experimented with various lengths of atlatls and found that certain lengths with precisely weighted stones could increase throwing distance. George Cole proposed in 1972 that weight may have been attached to the spear because he found a detrimental effect when weight was attached to the atlatl. In 1974, Calvin Howard found that increasing the atlatl and spear length could increase throwing distance, but adding weight decreased distance by 18 percent. Kwas reports on several other experiments with bannerstones, atlatls and spears that give variable and conflicting results that indicate the need for systematic experimentation. Until this is accomplished, the theory that bannerstones are indeed atlatl weights remains problematic.

    Kwas reports that in 1973 Prudence Precourt wrote that bannerstones were atlatl weights and status symbols. Precourt states that only 3 percent of Archaic burials contain bannerstones, but 85 percent of the bannerstones found at Archaic sites were in non-burial contexts, thus indicating that a burial with a bannerstone was a status burial including those of women and children. Howard Winters in 1968 and Nan Rothschild in 1975 reached similar conclusions that bannerstones were status markers.

    So, what are bannerstones, atlatl weights or ceremonial status objects? This writer feels strongly that bannerstones are indeed both. The Archaic Period lasted for at least 7000 years. It was within this long period that bannerstones first developed, rose to a climax and disappeared. There is a significant body of evidence suggesting that it is quite conceivable that early or less developed bannerstones were indeed intended to be used as weights. These forms might include, among others, tubes, humped, triangular, ball and other less elaborate forms of bannerstones.

    Atlatls and the attached weights were the lifeblood of these hunters and gatherers. Probably no other possession contributed more to their survival than the atlatl. Perhaps over time the attached weight slowly became more elaborate, more decorative and more spiritual. Perhaps certain atlatls and attached weights were never intended to be used in a utilitarian way. It may have been that every family, clan or other unit possessed the power or luck needed to assure the survival of the owners. Over time these "special" bannerstones developed into the ultimate design specimens that we now consider among the highest artistic achievements of prehistoric man.

    A modern analogy might be the highly decorative commemorative rifles and shotguns that have the highest degree of workmanship, special engravings, rare metals, exotic wood, fine detail, and special ammuni-tion. All of these features add nothing to the functionality of the weapon itself.

    It is inconceivable that a large thin winged butterfly bannerstone would ever be used in a utilitarian way. Nor would the double crescents, notched ovates or many others. If these bannerstones were not special, symbolic atlatl weights, then they were certainly ceremonial objects of some sort. Of course these are merely the conjectures of this writer.

    Much research is needed in the area of bannerstones. The area has been sorely neglected by the professional archaeological community. Most have jumped on the Webb bandwagon and have no intention of ever getting off. Fortunately there are a few researchers, like Mary L. Kwas and David Lutz, who refuse to wear the "Webb blinders" and have instead forged ahead with solid research and insightful thought.

    Article used with permission by Bill Koup, Author
    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
    Bannerstones: Utilitarian or Ceremonial?

    For decades it has been surmised that the bannerstone is a counter-balance weight that was placed at the center of the atlatl shaft to improve the optimum ability of the weapon. Another line of thought is that more elaborate bannerstones were places on the ends of staffs to designate status or tribal affiliation. The documentation that has previous been published about bannerstones leads one to conclude the bannerstone was in fact associated with the atl-atl spear thrower. Yet, when looking at some of the more ornate bannerstones, questions arise as to the possibility that such pieces could stand the torque generated by the thrower during daily use. Another valid question has always been, why put so much time and energy into making such an elaborate component part, when its use was purely utilitarian? Thus, the question remains - was the bannerstone a component part of a functional atlatl weapon, or was it manufactured with an intended use of being a part of a ceremony or burial ritual? Several examples of the more ornately designed double crescents and notched ovates were drilled in such a way that a shaft placed through the perforation would not be able to be inserted completely though both sides of the outer notches, leading one to believe these were either never attached to a shaft, or the bannerstone was simply placed on the end of the shaft which acted as a staff.

    More than one previous author has addressed the fact that many of the styles of bannerstones that are found simply would not hold up to the stress of daily use. This leads one to surmise such items were designed and manufactured purely for ceremonial use. Without the benefit of a written history, we can only speculate at the exact nature of the ancient ceremonies that took place, as well as the nature of the spiritual beliefs of the people who lived in ancient times. We do know from archaeological excavations that during the archaic time period when bannerstones were being manufactured, ancient man did place “grave goods” in the burials of the deceased. And it has also been well
    Documented (especially by Lutz) that bannerstones have been excavated in association with burials leaving a person hard pressed to deny that bannerstones did in fact have a ceremonial significance. But did all bannerstones have such a significance? There in lays the question at the heart of the bannerstone debate - where all styles purely ceremonial? Were all styles utilitarian? Were some component atl-atl parts while others were ceremonial in nature?

    When studying mortuary practices of ancient cultures around the world, one of the most common traits associated with the burial of the departed is the placement of various objects in the grave. Some of the more documented ancient cultures in various corners of the world left a written record which more clearly explains that such goods were there to assist the deceased with their journey into the next world. The sacrificing of servants being the most extreme example of the belief that things from this world could be taken into the next. Yet, simply because one culture in one time period in one part of the world held such a belief, certainly does not mean that all goods placed in graves in all time periods in all parts of the world held similar beliefs. The fact is, that as of the writing of this book, the placement of grave goods with the deceased continues as an everyday occurrence in the United States. From golf tees to favorite books to even Indian artifacts, objects are quite frequently placed along with the deceased before interment. None of which are done for use in the “next life”, but rather as a part of a ritualistic goodbye done more to assist the mourners cope with the death of a loved one than for any other reason. The point is, not everything that is found, excavated, uncovered or studied has to have a deeper significance. Often, we as travelers in the twenty-first century have to content ourselves with the fact that there are simply certain aspects of the past that will never be known to us. The intricacies of ancient ceremonies and spiritual beliefs being one of those aspects. True, it is fun to hypothesize and theorize, and often with much study and observation of the artifacts and their insitu associations very valid arguments can be made - but the bottom line fact is, there is no way to turn such arguments into factual conclusions in many circumstances. In the year 2450 AD the golf tees that were found in a casket buried in 2010 were not placed there to assist the deceased with his game in the next world. They were there because the deceased liked to golf. The box of Winchester anniversary edition 12 gauge shotgun shells were not placed there to assist with future hunts in the next life, they were placed there because when he couldn’t golf in the winter, the deceased loved to go duck hunting.

    While my personal beliefs are that it is very possible, and even probable that some items were in fact placed in graves as offerings to unknown deities, and other objects very well may have been placed there to assist the departed in their journey - I truly think that other items were simply momentos of the journey the deceased completed here in this world. Some knapping tools left beside a knapper, a favorite knife, a cherished family heirloom pendant etc.

    So - were bannerstones made to be counter-balance weights used on atlatls? Were they made to be totems or clan symbols to identify ones tribal affiliation? Were they status symbols for tribal elders or leaders or were they made as an ornate object to be placed in the graves of people of special stature? My feeling is that all of the above are probably true to some degree.

    The reasons that brought me to this conclusion are several-fold. First, there are simply too many lower and mid-grade bannerstones that have been found with evidence of wear and use to claim they were never used. Second and at the opposite end of the scale, are similarly shaped but much more ornate examples that would never hold up to the stress of actual use. Third is the finding of ornately designed bannerstones situated with remnants of other atl-atl component parts such as hooks and handles that were, and for whatever unknown reasons, sometimes place in graves with the deceased.

    Let’s think logically for a second about what we do know about bannerstones as utilitarian tools, then we can think about them as ceremonial objects.

    1.) Not all bannerstones are the same size and style, and thus it is probable that the variance in styles may indicate that while they are basically made for the same general purpose, some designs such as the fluted ball and the tube banners were made for use, while others such as notched ovates and knobbed crescents were made for ceremonial or mortuary purposes. It would be the same as what we do with guns in modern times. I have a nice .54 caliber black powder rifle I love to deer hunt with, while I also have a beautifully inlaid presentation rifle of the same caliber. One I take into the woods and hunt with, the other hangs on the wall in my office and will be passed down to my son one day for his wall. Both are guns – but one is made in an elaborate fashion strictly for appearance. The one I hunt with has scratches and nicks in from daily use during deer season, the other is in mint condition and I oil it regularly even though it stays on the wall. I think the same may be true for bannerstones.

    2.) If an ornate banner was not placed on a staff to identify a clan or person of some special stature, then it could easily have been part of a presentation-grade atl-atl used for some unknown ceremony, ritual, designation or award. There is really no way of knowing, but mankind tends to do today many of the things he did in the past. Biggest buck winner in a hunting contest now often gets a new gun as a prize or a trophy. Was an elaborately designed atl-atl a trophy of sorts in ancient times? Who knows, again, we can only speculate, but there is no doubt that they did have a significance to the ancient ones who crafted them.

    One of the more interesting and rarer styles of the notched butterfly bannerstone group are the tie-on variety. These were made thinner than their perforated counterparts, and lack the wider barrel in the middle where the drilling would have been placed.

    Unattributed article 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.