TWO BIRDSTONES RECORDED BY ARTHUR ABRAHAMS
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
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
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
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
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
First and closest is the Andrews Site: On June 13, 1942 a mortuary cache was exposed
during a house construction at this loci near
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
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
Third: In 1995,
Donaldson and Wortner published, “The Hind Site and
the Glacial Kame Burial Complex in
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
Beld, Scott B.
Terminal Archaic / Early Woodland Sites in
Donaldson, William S. and Wortner, Stanley,
1995 “The Hind Site and the Glacial Kame Burial Complex in
Papworth, Mark L.
Traditions In The
Spence Michael W. and Fox, William A.
Early Woodland Occupations of
Stothers, David M. and Abel, Timothy J.
Reflections of the Late Archaic and Early Woodland Time Periods In The Western
Lake Erie Region,”
2008 “Early Woodland Prehistory (1000-1 BC) in the Western Lake Erie Drainage Basin,” Transitions, pp79-116.