Monday, March 6, 2023


This week in Pennsylvania Archaeology is revisiting an earlier discussion of bannerstones, an enigmatic artifact type for sure. They appear in the Eastern Woodlands of North America during the Middle Atlantic period (9,000 - 6,000 years ago) and are most commonly found through the Late Archaic/Transitional period (6,000 - 4,300 years ago). They were made in a multitude of (Knoblock, 1939) shapes. From a variety of lithic materials and share a general symmetry and often are drilled through the center. There are several theories as to their use and function for the Indigenous peoples who crafted them.

The name bannerstone comes from Dr. C. C. Abbott who put forth the theory in the early 20th century that they may have been used during ceremonies as banners or like standards. Abbott suggested this because they are centrally drilled, as if to be placed on a handle, and most are highly polished, demonstrating a great deal of craftsmanship and effort. In support of this hypothesis, a cache of three bannerstones were discovered in 1908 by chance while plowing a field in North Carolina. They wereattached to a staff, which was decorated with rings, precisely fitting the drilled holes of the bannerstones (Baer, 1921).

Another theory is that they were used as weights on the end of a throwing stick or atlatl. Excavations conducted during the 1930’s under the WPA (Works Projects Administration) by William S. Webb, from the University of Kentucky at the Indian Knoll site recovered 42 bannerstones including “elements of throwing sticks know as atlatls” (Blume 2021).

It is suggested that adding the weight of the bannerstone to the atalatl , increased the velocity of the spear that was thrown, as pictured above. Subsequent research has questioned the weighted atlatl as having little to no additional benefit.

Yet another theory is that they were used as a spindle whorl in the production of twine or cordage. . Suspended fibers could be attached to the bannerstone spindle which could then be spun to consolidate t the fibers creating twine. The winged shape would make the spinning an easy action.

The Archaeology collections of The State Museum of Pennsylvania contain hundreds of complete and fragmented bannerstones. As some of our ardent followers may recall Sam Azzaro, a 2014 intern from Dickinson College worked with some of our bannerstones creating a detailed inventory that included descriptions, weights, and measurements. He blogged about his research on January 30, 2015. A subsequent intern Naomi Ulmer created a similar database with our axe collection. She was able to build on the bannerstone data by including 25 bannerstones with the many axes that she and former Senior Curator Dr. Kurt Carr and Dr. Robert Smith, Pennsylvania Geological Survey analyzed, to determine lithic types for both axes and bannerstones. Of those analyzed the majority were made of serpentine, a metamorphic rock composed of various minerals, as a result it can appear in many colors, but the eastern variety is often tan or beige (Carr, 2015).

Blackwall is an igneous rock that transformed over time, becoming a form of serpentine schist.

Greywackes are characteristically hard, dark gray-green coarse-grained sandstone.

Hornblende is a metamorphic rock with a high silica content.

Steatite is a very soft, metamorphic stone often referred to as soapstone.

Other anomalies of the bannerstones include the question of why so many are found with incompletely drilled holes. Sometimes the appearance is of a clearly unfinished bannerstone, so not being drilled is understandable, but in many cases the artifact appears “finished” and is highly polished but exhibits only a partially drilled hole. Approximately 32 percent of the bannerstones analyzed by Sam Azzaro were either not drilled or only partially drilled.

Many of the bannerstone fragments recovered feature intentionally drilled holes in the wings. These may be repair holes to rebind the broken pieces back together. Were the bannerstones special beyond

their function? Their significance may have been so important that even after they broke, they were redrilled and reused as pendants, sinew, or tally stones.

Broken wing from a bannerstone with 2 drill holes. Image from the collection of The State Museum of Pennsylvania.

Drilled bannerstone fragment, image from the collections of The State Museum of Pennsylvania

As with so many things, especially archaeology, the more we learn the more questions we have and clearly many questions remain about this enigmatic artifact, the bannerstone.

We hope you have enjoyed this blog and will continue to visit us as we highlight the collections of The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Section of Archaeology. We invite you to view additional pieces from our collections.

Baer, John Leonard         1921       A Preliminary Report on the So-Called “Bannerstones”. American Anthropologist 23(4):445-459.

Blume, Anna                      2021 Bannerstones, an Introduction. Smarthistory, accessed 2/24/2023

Carr, Kurt                             2015       Analysis Notes

Herbstritt, James              2023       Personal Communication

Knoblock, Byron               1939       Bannerstones of the North American Indian. Self-published, LaGrange, Illinois

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

No comments:

Post a Comment