Monday, November 24, 2008

Problematic Forms: Bannerstones

The image above is from the Ted Keir collection and on display at the SRAC Exhibit Hall. It is today called a winged bannerstone. Incredibly, banner stones are said to have been made by the people who lived in the Archaic time period in our region - that is - approximately 10,000 to 3,000 years ago.

Wikepedia claims: Banner stones are artifacts usually found in the Eastern US that are characterized by a centered hole in a symmetrically shaped carved or ground stone. The holes are typically ¼” to ¾” in diameter and extend through a raised portion centered in the stone. They usually are bored all the way through but some have been found with holes that extend only part of the way through. Many are made from banded slate or other interestingly colored hard stone. They often have a “wing nut” or “butterfly” shape but are not limited to these.

(different shaped banner stone)

It is drilled ever so carefully through the center and it is truly an art form especially when you consider that the people who made these did not have any metal tools to use to make it.

Because they were made so long ago, researchers have long debated on their specific use, but below you will find all the uses that I am aware of that have been theorized at one time or another:

Bannerstones Video from Ohio History Central:

The above video claims that the name "Banner stone" came from the early antiquarians believing that each stone and shape was placed upon a staff representing the kingdom it represented, like a banner...

(broken banner stone)

Today some specialists claim that these banner stones were a "Swiss army knife" for drilling, cordage making, or fire making for the ancient people who made them and that they are quite handy in performing many tasks in stone working. Some of these people in fact use them in this way today...proving that they can be used for such tasks without a doubt. Of course whether or not they were made for that purpose is still under debate...

(unfinished winged granite banner stone)

On the other hand, many archaeologists today agree that some of these may have been used as weights on a spear thrower called the "atlatl." The atlatl was a tool with several parts. It usually had a wooden shaft about two feet long. There was a hook of an antler at one end and a handle at the other. Shell weights or banner stone weights would have been fitted onto the wooden shaft. By using a weighted atlatl, Archaic hunters would have been able to throw their spears further and with greater force than before. This has also been proven as many people still use the atlatl and know that the weight is necessary.

(broken highly polished wing of a banner stone)

Lastly I have read that the material in use and the shape may have in fact defined different social groups and generations and that research in that direction might just help us to understand more about the many shapes of the banner stone.

I am no scientist and can only tell you that personally I find it hard to believe that anyone would use these things so roughly as they are polished and many seem to be quite delicate. I also think that after looking at all of the variations used under the broad term "banner stone" that maybe this term was and is being used too broadly. Furthermore, I think there is a good chance that there may have been more than one use for like objects...but again that is my opinion...

(broken highly polished banded slate banner stone)

In his 1917 book, "Stone Ornaments," Warren K, Moorehead offered up his thoughts about these "problematic forms" as follows:

"The winged objects with their various subdivisions constitute the
largest class of problematical forms.

Many of the pendants and ornaments from their position on skeletons, may be taken out of the unknown class, thus reducing it. Therefore, it is proper to say that the greater number of objects under study in this volume belong to the winged class and its subdivisions. Quite likely Professor Holmes when he used the word problematical had in mind various forms of winged perforated stones, rather than ovate and rectangular forms. Excepting a few regions in the East or South, the material selected by the Indians for winged objects was quite different from that employed in the manufacture of axes, pestles, celts and other utility tools. An inspection of the hundreds of photographs and drawings, illustrations in books and specimens spread out before the author as he writes these pages, seems to indicate a general line of thought which may be subdivided as follows:—

First, most of them are made of unusual materials; that is, the ancientIndian selected a bright, clear stone, a stone with well defined bands, of a fine-grained banded slate, or dark-brown sandstone, or red or blue shale, or a bright granite, or quartzite. He did not use ordinary limestone, and he employed gray slate or black slate without bands when he could obtain nothing else. He preferred the brighter colors. The very material and its treatment indicate that these objects in their purpose stand apart from the ordinary run of common artifacts.

(this winged banner stone is made of chlorite)

Second, he brought these objects to a state of high finish, all of which involved a deal of labor.

(unfinished banner stone)

Third, he was very careful in their manufacture. Pictures illustrating the progress of the double-winged problematical form from the block of slate to the finished specimen have been given in numbers of places in this book.

Fourth, he cast away broken axes or celts, and we seldom find a broken spear that is rechipped, unless for use as a scraper. But it is significant that he made use of nearly half of the broken problematical forms. This may seem trivial, but it is important; for we must inquire into every detailwith reference to these objects because it is only by such study that we shall learn anything about them.

Fifth, he made his perforations at right angles to the grain or bands of the stone, which should be noted. The exceptions are rare. If he drilled with the grain, the stone would chip, and before he finished the object, it might break.

(another banner stone shape showing the right angle drilling discussed above)

Sixth, he drilled the specimen before it was completed, knowing that the drilling was a dangerous process at best. And if he did not prize the specimen very highly, he would not have cared when he drilled it.

Seventh, he buried many of these short-winged stones with his dead. He placed specialized forms in altars, or under other conditions which stamped them as peculiar and valuable...

Moorehead went on to talk about his personal theory about the winged bannerstone stating:

"The thunder-bird myth is one of the most widespread through northern, central and eastern United States. It has been referred to repeatedly in the reports of those who have investigated the mythology, tradition and folk-lore of the Indian tribes. Perhaps there is no animal, bird or other form of life, around which more traditions and beliefs are centred than this same thunder-bird. Bay-bah-dwung-gay-ausch, the old blind Ojibwa shaman of Pine Point, Minnesota, now aged eighty-nine, told me in the summer of 1909, many interesting things concerning the Ojibwa belief in the thunder-bird. During a severe electrical storm one night in July, when we were camped at Big Medicine Lake, Bay-bah-dwung-gay-ausch arose and sang his medicine songs and burned some tobacco to propitiate the thunder-birds and drive them away. He informed me that in the olden times his people used charms to counteract the evil which these birds sometimes wrought.

My own theory concerning the bipennate or winged forms is that they represented the body and wings of the thunder-bird, and to this stone body were added the head and tail which were made of perishable materials.

This theory requires some explanation. It will at once be asked why was not the entire bird effigy carved out of stone? For the same reason that the pipe-stem and the ornamentation accompanying pipes are of different material. The head of the pipe being of stone or clay is always preserved; the stem of wood disappears as do the feathers or other decorations. It was inconvenient for the Indian to carve an entire bird effigy out of stone, and it was difficult. The entire effigy would be too large. Small effigies he did make. He found it simpler to make the body of the bird out of stone and add the head and tail feathers, just as he found it easier to make the stem of the pipe out of something else." Warren K. Moorehead, Stone Ornaments, 1917

Interestingly on page 425 in Stone Ornaments Moorehead shows a winged banner stone with what he describes as follows: "Material: dark greenish slate. Found by A. B. Winans near Battle Creek, Michigan. This is not perforated. It clearly shows the scratches made by the flint cutting-tool. Remains of hand-hammer action will be observed in the centre. This specimen well illustrates the method of manufacture and how that the Indians left a protecting ridge in the centre."

I found this of interest because I knew of the winged banner stone in our Keir collection shown below. If you look closely at this particular banner stone found locally, you can clearly see the incised markings that seem to me to represent an outstretched wing design, and they match the banner stone Moorehead referenced above.

Truth is that we can never say with 100% certainty what any of these "problematic forms" (otherwise known as "banner stones") were used for - or if they were all used for the same purpose.

I hope that after reading this post that you understand the importance of preserving our local artifacts and sharing them with others. They are not just pretty rocks....In these pictures you are seeing
evidence of a people who lived here thousands of years before us. By using this evidence we all can celebrate our past and learn more about how people lived here before us.

*All of the bannerstones shown on this page can be seen in the SRAC exhibit hall at 345 Broad St, in Waverly, NY.

No comments:

Post a Comment