Sunday, May 17, 2009

SRAC Discoidal Stones

Discoid: having a flat circular shape

As I have been reading through many old reports on sites in our region of NY and PA, the term "discoidal stone" keeps reappearing. After walking throughout the SRAC exhibit hall, packed with thousands of artifacts, I found many of these artifacts on display, and I thought it was worth posting an article about the term and the artifacts referred to as "discoidal stones."

Today, Ted Keir loaned me an old book compiled by Warren K. Moorehead in 1905, called "Prehistoric Relics" where the author explains the problem with these artifacts:

"The urgent need of the science of archaeology at the present time is a revision of its nomenclature; especially of the classification of prehistoric stone implements. Such uncouth and meaningless names...vague and indefinite terms...should be discarded from our archaeological vocabulary, and replaced with names conveying some specific idea of form, dimensions, or use of the objects....The term "discoidal stone is equally ambiguous and confusing; for among aboriginal stone relics, disc-like, or circular stones of almost every size and variety occur...each serving perhaps a distinct and different purpose."

The best known type of so-called discoidal stones is circular and has concave depressions on each lateral surface which vary in degree and depth, and sometimes a hole occurs in the center. These are most often explained as game pieces for an ancient Native American game called "Chungke."

"The warriors practice a diversion which they call the game of the pole, at which only two play at a time. Each pole is about eight feet long resembling a Roman f, and the game consists in rolling a flat round stone, about three inches in diameter and one inch thick, with the edges somewhat sloping, and throwing the pole in such a manner that when the stone rests, the pole may be at or near it. Both antagonists throw their pole at the same time, and he whose pole is nearest the stone counts one, and has the right of rolling the stone." -Antoine Simon Le Page Du Pratz, "History of Louisiana"(1758)

However, as Moorehead states above, the varying sizes and shapes under the one generalized term, "discoidal stone" most assuredly makes most people think that there are probably different shapes and sizes of disc-shaped stones that were made for different purposes.

Interestingly the most comon disc-shaped stones among the thousands of artifacts from Bradford County PA, and Tioga, Chemung, and Steuben counties in NY found at SRAC are flat sided or have convex shape to one side. In fact, Ellsworth Cowles and William Ritchie referred to these shapes as "muller stones" ... or basically a grinding tool...

But I have to ask why they are so perfectly round and many are so polished...some in fact do not show wear on the edges like other grinding tools.

I also think that it is important to note that in 1883 and 1916 respectively, the Murray Garden and the Murray Farm in Athens, PA had burials((Susquehannock) that included discoidal stones much like the ones found in the images included here, and I have to ask if they were just grinding tools, why would they be included in burials?

For whatever reason, it would seem that these stones were valued by the Susquehannocks in our region as much as they were in other parts of the country.

Lastly, we also have bi-pitted hammerstones that are disc-like that may fit the broad term of "discoidal stones" as well, and would seem to fit Ritchie's definition of "muller stones" more than the more polished versions shown above. As you can see below - they are round, but show the wear and tear of usage and have pits on each side to make them fit into your hand easily - - these are much more easily handled for grinding than the ones without the pitted sides.

So were these "discoidal stones" shown above all game stones? Were they tools? Were they ceremonial? I'd like to know what you think!

I ask that anyone that has more information about these stones to please add your information by clicking the comments link below this post so that others that want to learn more about them can use your information as well. Thanks in advance for your help!


  1. I suggest that "Discoidal Stones" were not originally used for gaming.

    My opinion is that their original purpose is shown on the Birchbark Scrolls.

    Here is an example from Cahokia that corresponds.

    Purposes could range from an offering dish to a center of religion. I suggest that if we look at the Birchbark scrolls and the engravings on them, the circular engravings on such scrolls depict the original purpose of these objects.
    Vince Barrows

  2. I would vote for the game theory. There is a resemblance to a hockey puck here. Wasn't there a game played by hockey-sticking a rock down a long groove in the snow trying for distance? This
    needs cool weather and lasting snow. Maybe these
    are winter game artifacts. Where is the rock formation that these are from?

  3. Even with (or w/o) the potter's wheel: one discoidal stone is used inside to smooth & lift & shape the pot as it is formed & another similar-sized stone (or peehaps larger) is used outside, directly opposite, to help shape & thin & evenout the clay walls of the pot. Then after the pot (either wheel-shaped or handbuilt) has dried perhaps a day, the larger smooth stone is carefully rubbed against the outside to "burnish" the clay, actually strengthening it & giving it an actual shine or sheen (sometimes). Sometimes broken pieces of gours are used in this same way. Each are treasured "work tools" often passed down through time & through families because they attain a kind of magic & power for successful work through use over time.

    I also believe that the same, or similar smooth stones were gently rubbed on the human body to assist healing & help knit broken bones back together & strengthen weakened conditions - symbolizing the strength of the rivers or streams or oceans from which these various stones were gathered, in belief that they possessed this water strength to impart to the patient, especiall children, who were wanted to grow strong & be swift & agile... Stone therapy is not a "new" therapy, but very ancient in healing...
    Each type of smooth stone, depending upon where it was collected from, embodied that curative strength & natural attributes. This continues to be the case in many forms of tribal & individual healing practices...

    I could go on & on, but hope this will help ...

  4. can u explain to me
    how river rocks are smooth and round

  5. When I took my Mother at 90 years old out of the desert to come live with me, Her neighbors had found totally round rock balls in a pit house that was covered over by a Nursery. They also found small flat rocks about one inch X one inch in size that looked like they had been pecked with rocks exactly like the huge cliff drawings you would see in caves, except they were all done on these small stones instead. The small rock drawings had desert bloom over the top of the drawings. I was told that the Indians left them in the Desert as prayers to God. Do you know anything about these two items?

  6. I have found several discoidals in plowed fields in Sussex, Virginia and some have no dimples and some do. The ones I found usually show polar abrading and and no dimples and probably were used as pecking stones to make smooth axe heads. One has a stain in both dimples. It was probably used to break the outer skin off of black walnuts and then for craking the walnuts. The only other use I can think of for the dimpled ones is for forcing a stick into a wood hole for spining and starting a fire. I believe the stone would not hold heat like the wood and would be part of most indians personal toolkit.

  7. I have a discoidal I found on my place in Tennessee that, at one time, probably several thousand years ago, used to be a sloping river bank. I found many hand tools there, too, that, in my opinion, were used to clean animals and their pelts. Several are "turtlebacks", others are knives and awls.
    Because of the proximity of these tools to the discoidal, I believe it was used as an aid when working the leather.
    The ancients drilled holes in the animal hides so they could be tied together to make clothes, bags, etc. After it was cleaned and scraped, the hide was held, stretched over the discoidal and held beneath it with one hand while drilling a hole in it, against the discoidal, with an awl or drill in the other hand. That would explain why a hole or depression in the center of the stone was important.
    The stone could also have been used to help shape the hides by pushing it against the pelt to stretch and soften it.
    I think most stone artifacts had a utilitarian purpose, and not used for games or religious ceremonies.

  8. My friend has a discoidal stone he found at a known indian settlement many years ago. It is made of granite, about 4 inches across and 1 1/4 inches thick. What I don't understand is that this stone is so perfectly round and the dished part is also perfectly dished out. How could they possibly do this without the use of a lathe? The artifact is also very smooth polished.

  9. Have any discoidal ever been found in south Carolina