TWO BIRDSTONES RECORDED BY ARTHUR ABRAHAMS

 

IN GENESEE COUNTY MICHIGAN

 

by

 

Donald B. Simons

 

 

 

These two fine birdstones are exceptional artifacts from a rare photographic record of selections from an early 20th Century collection assembled largely from the uplands of the Saginaw Valley - mostly Genesee County.  One, made on slate, is from Richfield Township in Genesee County and the other “pop-eyed” one, is made on porphyry, but is without a provenance.  This paper is intended to provide some insights into their relatively recent history; and to give some information on related examples from the archaeological record of the southern Lower Peninsula of Michigan and the adjacent region.

 

            During the 1940's and into the 1960's, thousands of Indian artifacts were shared with the community in exhibits secured by large, museum quality, glass cabinets on the third floor in the Genesee County Courthouse at Flint, Michigan.  The privately owned relics were assembled from collections made by several local men.  The records indicate that their artifacts were purchased or given as gifts from farmers and collectors in the county area. There were also some artifacts from Ohio and Indiana.  The vast majority of artifacts were from Michigan.

            The late Mr. Arthur Abrahams was the collections manager and curator, as well as an exhibitor.  He was also a founding member of the Michigan Archaeological Society.  Mr. Abrahams’ record of his acquisitions, included a photo album of birdstones and other selected artifacts titled, “Collection of Prehistoric Indian Relics by Arthur G. Abraham, January 1, 1956.”

            In regards to material, birdstones made on slate, are by far the most common in the archaeological record.  Slate, a sedimentary rock, either banded or plain, was the material of choice for the manufacture of birdstones as it is attractive and relatively soft and easy to work, yet quite durable.  Porphyry, on the other hand, is an igneous rock that is very hard and tough; therefore, once made, it is extremely durable.  It is also, uniquely attractive with patterns of large, bright phenocrysts or, crystals set in a dark background.  Porphyry and slate rocks are among the multitude of types glacially transported deep into Ohio and Indiana from bedrock outcrops in the Canadian Shield and Upper Michigan.  They were widely available especially in stream beds and on lake shores across the Great Lakes region.

            G-273 is noted on the back of the “Pop-Eyed Porphyry” picture.  Several other photos also have the precursor “G” with a number but without any data or a catalog entry.  Still, Genesee Co., may be the source of it since it is in the Abraham album and at that time more than thirty birdstones were recorded from this county.  Wherever it was found, this birdstone is a beautiful example of some of the very finest lithic craftsmanship to be found in the Midwest.  The overall symmetry is very even.  Close scrutiny of the photo with a 15x glass shows that the entire visible surface is evenly patinated, finely smoothed, and that the base is not drilled.  So, perhaps drilling alone remained to be done.

            Unfortunately, there is only one view of the slate bird.  In form, it is a fine example of the low “bar” style being much like the bar amulates which lack a head and instead exhibit a slight “tail” at each end.  Holes are drilled at an angle in each end in the manner of the birdstones for attachment to something.  The slate bird is made on lightly banded material with no aboriginal damage visible; however, there is a modern looking small scratch or nick at the forward part of the base.  Most notable is the word “HIAWATHA” faintly and crudely incised along most of the length of the base.  This kind of damage seems to me to be the work of some errant child.  In spite of that, it is a standout example of its type.

            Unfortunately, there was no scale in the birdstones photos.  So I measured the side views for a possible comparison which may be erroneous.  I do believe that they are close in size to the real ones.

 

The porphyry bird measures:  L: 4 1/2" x H: 2" or, L: 11.5 x H: 3.8cm

The slate bird measures:  L: 5 1/4" x H: 1 1/2" or, L: 13.4cm x H: 3.9cm.

 

Also, I used Abraham’s written measurements of 27 local birdstones and calculated a mean size of overall lengths to be 3 3/8 inches or, 9.76cm. 

            Typically, the first question from someone who sees their first birdstone is, “what is it for?” or “what did they do with it?”  In spite of immense study, the function of birdstones remains an ongoing debate.  Some possible uses are as an atlatl handle, atlatl weight, flute, pipe, a talisman for safe travel or good hunting, a religious or magic charm, etc.  These and many more suggestions have been offered to explain the function of birdstones.  It is likely that they were multi-purpose.  It is apparent that our only hope for an answer is that at some point archaeologists may learn the answer by finding birdstones in a special association with other artifacts that will provide an explanation of its function.

            We may be uncertain about the function, but we may have a pretty good idea of where and when they were made.  In Ontario, as stated by Spence and Fox: “there is no doubt that bar type birdstones occur primarily or exclusively in Glacial Kame [earlier] contexts and that ”Pop-eye” style birdstones are primarily or exclusively associated with Meadowood [later] components in southwestern Ontario.  These data again suggest a continuous transition in artifact form between about 1000 and 500 B.C.” (Spence & Fox, 1986:12).  They also suggest that the earlier Glacial Kame corner notched “Hind” type of projectile point transitions to the later side-notched “Meadowood” points.  Moreover, there is a great similarity between many of the long tubular bar amulets as well as some boatstones and birdstones.

            Archaeological work has provided much information about the Glacial Kame and Meadowood cultures which form a continuum of birdstone manufacture.  Currently, excavations at mortuary sites are taboo for archaeologists working in the Midwest.  Grave assemblages provide researchers with the invaluable, reliable, typological groups and provide true associations between artifact types and insights into the technologies of the people.  The following are several examples of site reports that provide much information on the cultural periods, contextual data and photos of birdstones.

 

  

 

            First and closest is the Andrews Site:  On June 13, 1942 a mortuary cache was exposed during a house construction at this loci near Saginaw Michigan.  Fortunately, it was recovered by a local resident, the late Robert, “Bob” Clunie.  The find instilled a great interest in Bob for local archaeology, and he began an exceptionally productive lifetime of archaeological activities in Michigan.

            The “Clunie” cache includes, one slate birdstone (w/bar shaped body like our subject) in association with, 17 copper beads, one copper awl, one copper celt, 3 hard-stone celts, 5 abraders graded by grit size, 6 Turkeytail knives, 116 bifacial point preforms and 4 notched points.  Over a span of six years others, including staff from the University of Michigan, excavated at Andrews. Eventually, a total of three other birdstones were found in other features at Andrews including two made on slate and one on porphyry.  Two are “bar”shaped and two are “short-bodied,” (Papworth, 88-104).

            Second:  In 1993 Stothers and Abel wrote “Archaeological Reflections of the Late Archaic and Early Woodland Time Periods in the Western Lake Erie Region.”  The paper gives an excellent synthesis on over twenty years of their research data with a focus on the Western Basin.  They also summarize and comment on published data from other researchers in the region.  A list is given, of their Western Basin sites with birdstones in features, including: Williams (5), Baker II / Green Creek (2), King (2), Hickory Isle (1), Ross (1), Rieger (1), for a total of 10 birdstones of various forms.  Over the many years of their excavations, forty or more radio-carbon dates were made on samples from features at a number of sites which collectively contained a wide array of diagnostic artifacts and some included birdstones in direct association.  Their work at these sites yielded radio-carbon evidence which spans the full breadth of the key era of 2000 to 3000 years before present.  This overview is packed with information, and is well illustrated. 

            Third:  In 1995, Donaldson and Wortner published, “The Hind Site and the Glacial Kame Burial Complex in Ontario.”  This outstanding report describes finds at thirteen sites in Southwest Ontario on the Late Archaic mortuary and related.  Five of the sites yielded 9 birdstones in situ. They are: Hind (2), Trenton Mountain (5), Blackfriars Bridge (1), Schweltzer (1).  This is an exceptional volume for its informative discussions and is loaded with photos of many kinds of artifacts of the Late Archaic in direct association.  At Hind, carbon samples from burial 15 were carbon dated to 2875 bp +/- 75.  The authors accept this as the correct date for Hind and the corner notched “Hind” point type.

            Fourth:  To improve our understanding of the birdstone makers’ culture, we need much more data from excavations at habitation sites which yield diagnostic artifacts which match and date in sync with mortuary sites.  In 1991 Scott Beld reported on excavations at, “Two Terminal Archaic / Early Woodland Sites in Central Michigan.”  In the Conservation Park Report, Beld describes a site that produced no birdstones yet did yield a major sample of typological, temporal and contextual data.  The lithic assemblage is made largely on exotic Onondaga chert from Ontario mixed with Bayport chert from the shores of Saginaw Bay.  Many Meadowood diagnostics were found there which are typological analogs to examples from a number of the mortuary sites mentioned above.  Moreover, pit features are carbon dated with seven dates in good fit with dates from these mortuary sites.  The mean date for them is 2,579bp.  Assemblages which are from habitation/residential sites may provide a wider range of tool types since they are typically reworked and, or modified to perform functions which are unique to the situation or season etc.  The excavation of such sites is an imperative if we want to improve our understanding of the birdstone maker’s lifeways.

 

References:

 

Beld, Scott B.

1991                “Two Terminal Archaic / Early Woodland Sites in Central Michigan.”  University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology Technical Report 22. Ann Arbor.

 

Donaldson, William S. and Wortner, Stanley,

1995               “The Hind Site and the Glacial Kame Burial Complex in Ontario,”

                        Ontario Archaeology,” Journal of the Ontario Archaeological Society, Pgs5-95.

                        North York, Ontario Canada. 1

 

Papworth, Mark L.

1967                Cultural Traditions In The Lake Forest Region During The Late High-Water Stages Of The Post-Glacial Great Lakes, Phd Dissertation UM Microfilm

 

Spence Michael W. and Fox, William A.

1986                The Early Woodland Occupations of Southern Ontario.  P12 in Kenneth B. Farnsworth, and Thomas E. Emerson, eds., “Early Woodland Archeology,” Kampsville:   Center for American Archeology Press.

 

Stothers, David M. and Abel, Timothy J.

1993                “Archaeological Reflections of the Late Archaic and Early Woodland Time Periods In The Western Lake Erie Region,  Archaeology Of Eastern North America, Volume 21, Pgs 25-110.

2008                “Early Woodland Prehistory (1000-1 BC) in the Western Lake Erie Drainage Basin,” Transitions, pp79-116.