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Spools (Late Prehistoric Fort Ancient)

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  • Spools (Late Prehistoric Fort Ancient)

    What's in a Spool?
    D. R. Gehlbach, Columbus, Ohio
    Originally published in the Central States Archaeological Journal, Vol.52, No.4, pg.202


    On occasion, certain artifacts resist our attempts at interpretation. Such is the case of the stylistically unique family of artifacts called "Spools". Likely the product of the Late Prehistoric Ohio Ft. Ancient people, the enigmatic spools like birdstones, lizard effigies and a number of other curious objects in pre*history have long perplexed archaeological researchers. Numerous attempts have been made to explain the significance of the unusually shaped spools, but to date the majority of ideas proposed suffer from a lack of conclusive evidence.

    In the case of Ft. Ancient spools there are additional roadblocks which obscure their true identity.

    *Spools are extremely rare, perhaps the rarest and least widely distributed among all Ft. Ancient artifacts.

    *Spools appear to be individually styled, therefore no two examples provide confirming diagnostic information.

    *Since spools occur in very limited numbers, with perhaps less than 100 documented authentic examples, the number of available spools for comparative study is limited.

    *The designs depicted on spools (most are heavily engraved) were not reproduced on other Ft. Ancient artifacts.

    *Most of the spools have been found in contexts lacking related features, or at least the features were not documented and most without associated Ft. Ancient artifacts.

    Perhaps, attempts at defining the function(s) of spools have included a number of interesting theories. They range from spools being deployed as divining devices, spiritual or clan jewelry, gaming pieces, children's toys, weaving devices and even astronomical sighting devices. These observations were likely based on relatively few examples and a fair amount of imagination.


    Figure 1: An array of sandstone spools of various designs and forms, all from sites in southern Ohio (Gehlbach)

    What's the old saying? You can prove your point no matter what it is if you try hard enough. One of the main problems with accepting any of these proposals is the unknown significance of the wide variety of design embellishments on spool specimens and their multiple configurations.

    Spool Characteristics:

    Based upon a personal study of approximately 20 specimens, the following observations can be made concerning Ft. Ancient spools.

    *The preponderance of spools were crafted of fine grained or rarely gritty sandstone which facilitated the addition of decorative elements.

    *Most spools have been found within 50 miles of the Ohio River, mostly in southern Ohio, and much less frequently in northern Kentucky and northwestern West Virginia. The Ohio counties of Hamilton, Clermont, Adams and Scioto produced by far the most examples.

    *Spool shapes in order of their frequency of occurance are: Hourglass, Straight Tubular with a slightly bulbous center section, gently rounded (resembling a beer keg) and Tubular with uniform dimensions (some with slightly flared rims at the top and bottom). The hour glass form is represented in a large majority of examples.


    Figure 2: A rare limestone spool (blocked line design detail obscured) Hamilton County, Ohio, formerly Billy Bush collection (Gehlbach)

    *Most of the spools have a centrally located cavity at one or both of their flat ends. The typical depths of the circular holes range from a tick mark to a drilled cavity up to one inch deep and one sixteenth inch in diameter. A few have a hole drilled completely through the artifact. Even fewer are undrilled.

    *Spools usually range from one inch to three inches in length.

    *Most spools employ multiple engraved designs over their surfaces. While the decorative patterns vary with each example, repeated themes can be identified. They include:

    # Wavy parallel lines, zig-zag lines, semi-circular lines, opposing lines


    Figure 3: Heavily engraved sandstone spool counter balanced line and circle pattern, Clermont County, Ohio (Gehlbach)

    # A starburst or moon design with outwardly radiating lines surrounding the perforation at the end of the spool

    # A lightning pattern surrounding the central perforation

    # A flower petal pattern surrounding the central perforation

    # A distinctive lip feature surrounding the central perforation

    # A track-like design featuring opposing parallel lines

    #Single or multiple rows of engraved circles enclosed within a parallel straight line pattern

    #A combination of two or more of the design features listed above

    Possible Spool uses:

    The author suggests the listed embellishments appear to have been added for decorative reasons and may not be particularly helpful in identifying spool functions. It is possible the ornamentation may represent a form of symbolic record keeping. The resulting inference is the spools were employed as markers to record significant information. The relatively nondescript or crude markings on some examples tend to obviate this theory.



    Another possibility, mentioned earlier, is the spools were gaming pieces used in sort of "spin the spool" game. It is difficult to determine a role for various decorative elements if any, in the game. The Ft. Ancient societies were known for their apparent leisure time activities including the game of "chunkee' where circular discoidals were thrown down a specially prepared alley to a forecast destination. Spools may have been involved in a similar fashion were wagering was based on their predicted final resting place.



    Despite a certain fascination with the discussed possibilities, the real purpose(s) for crafting spools of the Ft. Ancient people may always remain a mystery. Even in light of their anonymity, spools are interesting artifacts and highly desired collectibles.


    Used by permission of the publisher
    To learn more about or to join the Central States Archaeological Society, click here: http://www.csasi.org/
    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.
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