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Bannerstones - What Are They?

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 the¬ory 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 ban-nerstones, 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 accom-plished, 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 ban-nerstones 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.

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So, what are bannerstones, atlatl weights or cere-monial status objects? This writer feels strongly that bannerstones are indeed both. The Archaic Period last-ed for at least 7000 years. It was within this long peri¬od that bannerstones first developed, rose to a climax and disappeared. There is a significant body of evi¬dence 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 pos-session 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" bannerstonesdeveloped 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 high-est degree of workmanship, special engravings, rare metals, exotic wood, fine detail, and special ammuni-tion. All of these features add nothing to the function- ality of the weapon itself.

It is inconceivable that a large thin winged butter- fly bannerstone would ever be used in a utilitarian way. Nor would the double crescents, notched ovates or many others. If thesebannerstones 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 pro-fessional 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.

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

Article used with permission by Bill Koup, Author