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Fishing Weights, Plummets?

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  • Fishing Weights, Plummets?

    Posted by [CMD]

    All the artifacts shown here are interpreted as fishing weights by archaeologists and collectors in New England. These particular examples are personal finds by my wife and myself.

    It was a blazing hot day in a corn field atop a bluff overlooking the Atlantic in coastal Ma. From several rows over my wife called out "want some water?". I walked over, took the canteen from her and as I did she looked at our feet and said "look!!" A nice plummet, tiny knob with a shallow ring at the base of the knob.

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    Not sure of the material, but there's an inclusion on the top of the knob that makes a figure 8. Of course, it would not have been a figure 8 to the maker, but the maker would have known the shape would end up on top of the knob. Wonder if it meant anything to him?

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    All I saw of the next plummet was the very top of the knob. The plummet was buried upright in frozen sediment along a river bank. We used sharp stones to hack away at the ground until I could wiggle it free and discover it really was a plummet!

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    I found the next one on the same river bank. Simple as it gets, just a groove pecked around one end of an otherwise unmodified sandstone pebble.

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    My wife found this next one. It's really just a notched weight, but the notches are ground smooth and the maker placed them so the piece resembles a plummet, and so I regard it as a type of plummet.

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    Next up, a nice grooved weight. Good example of how the same artifact class can go by different names depending on what part of the country they're found. In New England, this is a grooved weight, but in Texas, I believe these are called Waco sinkers.

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    Another hot summer day. My wife and I walked to the waters edge on a Narragansett Bay beach carpeted with cobbles. We stopped, she looked at our feet and said "look!!". A waterworn grooved weight. A few seconds later, I said "here's another one" and picked up a notched weight less then a foot away from the grooved weight. If these were net weights, they were perhaps from the same net.

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    Lastly, the simplest and by far the most common of weights, notched weights, usually interpreted as net weights. The plummets are usually interpreted as line weights, but the really big ones could have been anchors. The one on the left from a corn field, the other from a beach.

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    If you have any weights you'd like to share, feel free to post some photos
    Last edited by CMD; 05-09-2021, 07:23 AM.
    Look to the ground for it holds the past!

  • #2
    Posted by [painshill]
    Nice show, Charlie.
    That first item might be grano-diorite. I can see some small orbicular features which commonly occur in this rock.

    Posted by [CMD]
    Thanks for the possible ID on that, Roger. Sandstone was the most common choice hereabouts, cobbles of it everywhere. Grano-diorite is probably spot on.

    Posted by [gregszybala]
    Nice Charlie, have yet to find anything like that around here and you would think being on the shores of a Great Lake, there would be opportunity.
    Side note, Plummets, I don't understand how they would work. You would think the grove would be much more pronounced, deeper, to retain the line tied around it. It seems the line could slip off very easily. Also, why so well crafted, the smooth teardrop shape, less drag when retrieving from the water, but still alot of work and craftsmanship for something that is constantly getting thrown into the water?

    Posted by [CMD]
    Good question, Greg. Somewhere I have illustrations showing suggested hafting for plummets as line weights with hooks. If, and it is a big if, I can locate those illustrations, I'll post them here.

    Posted by [painshill]
    Charlie, is this what you were thinking of?

    I'm with Greg. Even with the benefit of the above finds that suggests those items were all used in association with each other, I still don't understand how the weight didn't slip off the string. I also have some fishing weights (presumed, although from riverside locations) from neolithic French sites with grooves that are so shallow I imagine the weight continually being lost. It doesn't feel right, so there must be something we don't yet know or understand. I've tried tying a couple of items onto lines myself. If you tie them with wet twine it shrinks when it dries, so that tightens it all up... but then it dawned on me that as soon as you put it in the water it's gonna loosen again!
    What is it that we aren't getting?

    Posted by [CMD]
    Thanks for the informative link, Roger. I'm sure I cannot provide the answers you and Greg seek, but I did find one illustration of a suggested hafting. This illustration is taken from C. Keith Wilbur's The New England Indians (1978), p.8, and is based on a display at the Robbins Museum (known as the Bronson museum when the book was published), which is the museum of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society.

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    Hope this helps somewhat. Here they are interpreted as line weights. This particular arrangement uses 2 two piece bone fish hooks.

    Here are a couple more RI plummets. The first one is knobbed and grooved, and is easier to imagine hafting without slippage. The second is just one of my favorite plummets.

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    And one from Maine where drilling and a groove made for easy hafting.

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    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
      Posted by [pkfrey]
      Only a few of these are fishing net weights. The net weights are the flat rocks with a notch on either side. The rest are grooved and notched " plummets". We call them plummets, but they are actually bola stones. Several of these are tied to seperate pieces of some type of strong cordage, these in turn are tied to a larger main piece of cordage. They are swung around the head until there is enough momentum to let them fly at a target. The most common use was to hurl these at a flock of geese, trying to entangle their legs before they are in flight. Aborigines of Australia still use these for hunting.

      Posted by [CMD]
      There has always been debate regarding the use of plummets. California charmstones may be the best example of plummet-like artifacts that have had multiple interpretations of usage applied to them. I have a very large knobbed plummet from RI, which unfortunately I can't locate at the moment, but it is 8" long, weighs several pounds, and there's no way it was used as a bola stone. Anchor maybe, but not a bola stone. And it's a classic in appearance, symetrical plummet. Just oversized. I believe plummets had different uses and that some were most certainly fishing weights.

      Regarding grooved weights, according to the Massachusetts Archaeological Society, an example was found in New York state with charred cordage intact as well as remains of a fishing net. I've also seen grooved weights over 1 foot in length. Hard to see such a large stone used as a bola stone. I do understand that many smaller grooved weights were in fact bola stones. Here are 2 heavy examples from my collection, both about 6" in length. Aren't these too big for bola stones?? I think so. I also suspect the examples shown above were fishing weights. I have found bola stones and they're smaller then my other grooved weights.

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      [Posted by [pkfrey]
      I wasn't referring to any thing larger than the ones pictured. The larger, heavier ones, naturally were not bola stones. But the smaller ones pictured, those that fit into the palm of your hand, were in fact, bolas. refer to Charles Miles book, Indian & Eskimo Artifacts, page 12, figures 1.67 - 1.69. There are examples of original bolas used by the Eskimos. Other examples of plummet-like objects can be found in other books showing ancient and historic use of these stones as bolas. There bolas.

      Posted by [Butch Wilson]
      Paul, I looked at you reference in my copy of Indian and Eskimo Artifacts true he calls them bolas, however the stones are attached to a netted lines and the rectangular stones are being called net weights. We may be misled by thinking of net weights as fishing nets, not game nets. Thanks for the reference, I haven't picked that book up in a while, nice artifacts in that one.

      Posted by [CMD]
      It's easier for me to believe that certain weights enjoyed more then one function then it is to believe all weights in a certain size range have to have been used as bola weights. I suspect we're dealing with different uses. I just can't buy into a "one theory fits one size" approach. I'm also reluctant, while aknowledging that some plummets were used in places and certain cultures as bola weights, to simply throw out several generations of conventional interpretation by New England archys. This illustration is courtesy of A Handbook of Indian Artifacts From Southern New England(1991, revised by Curtis Hoffman and published by the MAS). It illustrates the 5 classes of artifacts interpreted by our regions' archys as being fishing gear. Classic plummets date to the Middle Archaic, Clumsy plummets Late-Transitional archaic. The grooves around some of the clumsy plummets are interpreted as places to lash fish hooks.

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      Sometimes context of find makes all the difference, and nobody knows the context of the finds I've shown better then I do. Take the 2nd and 3rd photos I posted in this thread. Two Clumsy plummets. These were both found at one of the 3 largest prehistoric fishing stations/camps know for the Narragansett Bay region. We were Johnny-come-latelys to the site and erosion has essentially erased it. We knew just how late we were the day I had the chance to examine a collection put together by one woman who walked about 4 miles of shore, including the location of the fishing station, for close to 40 years. The most notable aspect of what she found at the fishing camp itself was the great number of weights. Well over 100.

      Many notched weights, but dozens of classic and clumsy plummets, and grooved weights ranging in size from a loaf of bread down to your average fist size. Only at this fishing station were so many weights found. There is a good reason why this was such a regionally important fishing station for thousands of years, but if I spell out those reasons, somebody local to my state could probably figure out the location, so I won't do that. We might still find stuff there once in awhile I think. Anyway, yes, someone could have hunted geese there, but all these weights at a major fishing station suggest fishing gear to me. This woman used to dig in the mudflats there as well, for old bottles, and this resulted in the recovery of many bone fish spears and bone fish hooks.

      Now here are 2 Classic plummets of very similar form, one of average size, one 8 inches long and weighing several pounds. If, for the sake of argument we say the first was a bola weight, and we say for the sake of argument that the 2nd one is too heavy for a bola stone, then why do they have similar form?

      It's easier for me to believe they were designed for a similar task, but with different weight requirements. Since that task for the larger one could not be usage as a bola stone, why should I believe the smaller one could ONLY have been used as a bola stone?

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      Here are 2 illustrations from Charles Willoughby's Antiquities of the New England Indians(1935). The first shows many styles of average size New England plummets. The 2nd shows large plummets in the same size range as the large one pictured above.

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      Here is a small grooved stone I found that was ID by a local archy as a bola stone.

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      I have no problem envisioning different uses for some of these weights, and, in all honesty, I can't imagine the large one I pictured being fastened merely to its' rather weak knob. There has to have been a more secure lashing involved. The context of at least some of the personal finds I pictured here still leans me toward fishing gear as their intended usage. I also wonder why hardly any plummets we've found or seen show any damage. I would think throwing these things through the air repeatedly would result in nicks now and then, but I never see that. At any rate, all of the above is JMHO. I'm not ready to throw away the opinions of my regions' archys. I remain unconvinced that all plummets, in a certain size range, and all grooved weights, in a certain size range, could ONLY have been used as bola weights. In southern New England, some were used as fishing gear, and the context of some of our own finds convince me of that fact.

      Posted by [Butch Wilson]
      Plummets have been discucussed and debated for a long time. I wonder if they may have been used as cordage weights in the net making process and not used on the completed net at all. This could account for the weak attachment area, not meant for permanent attachment at all!

      Posted by [11KBP]
      That's an interesting thought Butch.
      It's the "weak attachment area" you speak of that is so puzzling to me.

      Posted by [Butch Wilson]
      Refering to the very shallow groove at the top of some plummets previously discussed as resulting in a not very secure tying point for the cordage. Especially for the pressures put on it when throwing or retrieving a fish net. This groove would be secure enough to keep the cordage from slipping in the net making process. Some plummets have been found with elaborate decorations. Not something you would expect on something that could easily be lost in everyday use. I think this would also explain why some plummets were found in burials, tools of the trade for a master netmaker. Sure this is all conjecture on my part, but at this point so are the other explanations, at this point Who knows for sure....certainly not me.

      Posted by [Painshill]
      I like where you're going with this, Butch. As a theory it has many attractions and ties up a lot of loose ends.

      Posted by [CMD]
      Here is a very short synopsis of the "plummet problem", the section regarding plummets on this page:

      There is a study online somewhere, maybe I can find it, where the authors' study draws a close relationship between California charmstones, perhaps the most ornate and highly finished of plummet-forms, and with the finest of material selected in many cases, and shamanism. Also, we find highly finished examples of other artifact classes in burials, so why not fine(or utilitarian for that matter) examples of the plummet-form, for a master fisherman or a master duck hunter?

      I may start calling them plummet-forms after this thread, to retain the sense that the purpose/function remains unclear. If the knob is well fashioned with a good groove, I think they would still work as fishing gear, but others would need some kind of "cordage girdle" as well if they were to work. At least here, in southern New England, the plummet-form is seen as a line weight in the small sizes, so they were not necessarily being tossed or cast as might be the case with a net. The grooved weight is interpreted as both a line weight and a net weight.

      Posted by [gregszybala]
      Great post and great discussion.
      I like where you guys have gone with this and Butch does make a good point. Still clueless though, as you stated Charlie, Archaeological context and the learned conjecture based on that has created the consensus for these being line and or net weights. Also like you said, it is surprising they are not more dinged up, are these water areas that you find them sandy, rocky? Dragging them back in in a rocky area you would thing, dings, but the shape would also allow them to ease through and not snag as much.
      I guess to me, that is what makes this hobby so interesting. Despite all we know and think we know, there is so much we don't. We can guess, wonder, create theory and discuss, but some things continue to remain mysteries.

      Posted by [CMD]
      Glad you enjoyed the discussion, Greg, and I appreciate the points you made in the discussion. I had actually never considered the problem of how plummets stayed securely attached until you raised that question. The fishing station where I found the 2 Clumsy plummets has a pretty sandy bottom. If plummets were line weights, they might not be subject to a lot of banging or scraping on other rocks. But, this thread has made it clear the class of artifacts known as plummets are not at all clear cut where their use and purpose are concerned, they do remain a mystery.

      Posted by [tomclark]

      How “Plummet” pendants probably functioned in Pre-Columbian Florida:

      “Plummets” – An Analysis of a Mysterious Florida Artifact:

      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.


      • #4
        Posted by [CliffJ]
        Here are two I've found from here near the Roanoke River in NC. I've always figured they were fishing weights as they came from near the river. The long one is grooved all the way around, and I thought it was a peanut when I found it. It is very polished, and both are soapstone.

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        Posted by [CMD]
        Nice ones, Cliff. Soapstone was used here as well. Thanks for sharing those.
        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.


        • #5
          Posted by [tomclark]
          Some "Clumsies", some Finery ...all FL

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          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.


          • #6
            ... continued:

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            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.


            • #7
              Posted by [gregszybala]
              This information was provided by kenwhite:

              At least as it relates to these artifacts recovered in California and throughout the west, the literature appears to overwhelmingly support the belief that they are not net weights or other utilitarian tools (or, at least, not exclusively such tools). I recently ran across “A Charmstone Site in Sonoma County, California” by Albert B. Elsasser (University of California Archeological Survey Reports, Volume 28, 1955). The opening paragraphs of that article, for your consideration…

              “The type of artifact called variously ‘charmstones,’ ‘sinkers,’ ‘plummets,’ ‘slingstones,’ and the like has figured so heavily in the archeological literature of the United States and of California in particular that a review of the many speculations on their function or purpose would here be superfluous. Probably the only clear-cut evidence concerning the use of these artifacts has been obtained from ethnographic sources. Henshaw, for example, was told 70 years ago by the Indians of Santa Barbara and at San Buenaventure that the specimens were ‘medicine or sorcery stones,’ i.e., objects employed ceremonially for such purposes as curing the sick, bringing rain, or calling fish up the streams (Henshaw, 1885, pp. 6-7).

              “An old Indian in Napa County informed Yates (ca. 1885) that plummet-shaped implements were used as charm stones; that they were used by being suspended by a chord from the end of a pole, one end of which was stuck into the bank of a creek in such a manner as to leave the stone suspended over the water where the Indians intended to fish. In other places, they were suspended at points in the mountain favorable for hunting (Yates, 1889).

              “The Wintu people of the Sacramento Valley looked upon strangely shaped stones as being possessed of supernatural power, For example, flat ovate stones pierced at one end for suspension were identified as luck charms. ‘Were the particular attributes of the charm not disclosed by its shape, a shaman might be asked to reveal them by consulting his spirits. Usually, however, the shape of the stone denoted the type of charm and pragmatic evidence of its efficacy often revealed to the owner its attributes (DuBois, 1935, p.82).

              “Other ethnographic sources (infra) assign a primarily practical use to the specimens. Even here, however, is the strong likelihood that some of the specimens were thought to be possessed of magical qualities as well.”

              Photographs in that articles leave no doubt that he is discussing the same class of artifacts covered in this thread.

              By the way, the same author (Elsasser) joined Peter Rhode in 1996 to publish “Further Notes on California Charmstones” (Coyote Press, Archives of California Prehistory, Number 38) which includes both a literature review and proposes a typology of this class of artifacts.
              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.


              • #8
                Posted by [tomclark]
                Shell plummets from my area of West Central Gulf Coastal FL and some historical finds from local mounds pics.

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                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.


                • #9
                  ... continued:

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                  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.


                  • #10
                    Posted by [tomclark]
                    Some "Grooved Weights", Hernando Co., FL
                    This one made of fine grained sandstone
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                    This limerock one has a flattish bottom not seen in the pic. Unusually grooved both ways.....
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                    This one from Pinellas Co., FL also limerock, Yes, that's a poney shovel ding wah.
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                    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.