Looking Back on Early
Wayne County History
(Part 3 – Glacial Slate Artifacts)
Article three of this series builds on articles one and two, by showing examples of a number of prehistoric slate artifact types that are commonly found here in Wayne County, Ohio. All information and dates are approximate and the subject of regular debates. Article three is separated into four sections: what is Glacial Slate and why was it used, the process of creating an object from Glacial Slate, Glacial Slate artifact types, and salvaging and engraving a damaged Glacial Slate object.
A number of terms will be used in article three that have been defined in articles one or two. If you do not have articles one and two or are unsure of the definition of a term please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
WHAT IS GLACIAL SLATE AND WHY WAS IT USED?
The slate used by the prehistoric peoples of this area is not the same type of slate currently used for roofs or chalkboards. They used a type of slate called Glacial Slate, also known as Banded (for its striping) or Huronian Slate (where it originated). This slate originated far to our North and was brought to our area by the glaciers. As the glaciers receded pieces of Glacial Slate were left behind. This material is relatively soft and fairly durable. These characteristics paired with its beautiful banding made this material perfect for creating ceremonial or decorative objects. Glacial Slate can found in many colors such as black, maroon, and purple, but green or grey are most common. Raw Glacial Slate with well defined lines or bands was much more desired for the creation of important ceremonial objects. Great care was often taken to incorporate the natural bands into the final form of the object. For example: note the eye and feathers of the salvaged bird effigy (5B).
THE PROCESS OF CREATING AN OBJECT FROM GLACIAL SLATE:
The process of creating an artifact from Glacial Slate required many steps and a great deal of patience and skill. The first step was to find a piece of raw slate approximately the same size as the desired object (1A). The raw slate would be studied in order to incorporate the banding into the final shape of the item. Next the raw slate would be lightly tapped or pecked with a hammerstone (1B) hundreds of times to achieve a general outline (1E). To further refine the shape, the piece would be ground against a large flat piece of sandstone or other coarse stone. The final step to fashioning the overall shape was to make it smooth by polishing it with an animal hide. This would also bring out the beautiful bands of the material. Once the final shape was achieved, the item would be drilled using either a flint drill or hollow piece of cane. Nearly all slate objects were drilled with flint drills, with the exception of bannerstones, which were primarily drilled with a cane. Flint drills created small holes that were conical in nature. Holes drilled with flint from one side are said to be drilled conically (1C). Holes drilled from both sides created two cones that met in the center. This is referred to as biconical drilling (1D). Cane drilling was used when a larger tube shaped hole was necessary (4C).
GLACIAL SLATE ARTIFACT TYPES:
Glacial Slate was used for hundreds of artifact types during the Paleo, Archaic, Woodland, and Mississippian periods. These types range from practical, small, simple shapes to impractical, large, delicate and complicated shapes. The three types I will discuss are pendants, gorgets, and bannerstones.
Pendants (2A & 2B) are theorized to have been strictly ornamental with no practical purpose. They may have been attached to the neck or wrist with a leather strap. They were most commonly used during the Woodland period by the Adena and Hopewell cultures. The outline of pendants is generally flared from top to bottom with a single hole placed toward to top. They tend to be biconically drilled (1D), flat on both sides, and average 1/4- 1/3” thick and 3-4” long. The common trapezoidal pendant (2A) shows how the use of banding was incorporated into its shape. Note the circular pattern just to the right side of the hole.
Like pendants, gorgets (3A, 3B, & 3C) are theorized to have been strictly ornamental as well. Gorgets have many similarities to pendants, but are much more diverse in their overall shape. Gorgets are characterized by having two or more holes. They were most commonly used during the late Archaic and Woodland periods by the Glacial Kame, Adena, and Hopewell cultures. Both conical (1C) and biconical (1D) drilling was used in their formation. While gorgets are generally thin and two dimensional like pendants, they can be thick with diverse and complicated three dimensional outlines. The Glacial Kame gorget (3A) is named for being associated with the Glacial Kame culture of the late Archaic period. This style is known to often have three biconically drilled holes (1D) and rounded edges. The biconcave gorget (3B) is generally associated with the Adena culture in the early Woodland period. It is characterized by two inward arching sides and holes that are often biconically drilled (1D). The quadriconcave gorget (3C) is also associated with the Adena culture in the early Woodland period. All four sides arch inward and it may have been developed from the biconcave design. This type has conical holes (1C) and squared edges.
BANNERSTONES OR ATL-ATL WEIGHTS:
To understand what a bannerstone is, we must first discuss the atl-atl or spear throwing stick (4A). An atl-atl or spear throwing stick is basically a stick or bone with a slight hook at the end. This hook was placed at the base of the spear. With the help of the atl-atl, a spear was able to be thrown a greater distance with much more power. The use of this tool shows that, as far back as the Paleo period, prehistoric people of this area understood the concept of leverage. Since these people were hunting mega fauna such as Mastodon, it was extremely beneficial to be able to throw a spear a great distance. The further a spear could be thrown, the less likely the hunter would be injured by his prey.
It is theorized that in the late Paleo or early Archaic period, a weight called a bannersone was added to the atl-atl increasing its weight, thus increasing its power. The bannersone was generally made of Glacial Slate and drilled with a reed leaving a single hole measuring about ½” in diameter.
There are many styles and variations of bannerstones. I will discuss the following three: crescent, pick, and geniculate. The crescent bannerstone (4B) is characterized by an arched shape and tubular hole. The arch can range from mild, like a banana to severe, like a horseshoe. The crescent bannersone was primarily used during the archaic period. The pick bannerstone (4C) is characterized by its tapered ends and tubular hole. The pick style ranges from being stubby and football shaped to long and cigar shaped. As the length increases, so does the likelihood that it will be slightly arched. The geniculate bannerstone (4D) is extremely rare and is easily identified by its L shape and oblong hole. The geniculate bannerstone was most commonly used during the late Archaic period.
SALVAGING AND ENGRAVING A DAMAGED SLATE OBJECT:
Flint was generally re-sharpened in order to extend its life as a utility tool. While slate was also salvaged or reworked for this reason, it was also done for other reasons. Slate items were often reshaped after they were damaged and sometimes engraved with geometric patterns such as cross hatching, ladders, and triangles. Examples (5A, 5B, and 5C) show a salvaged and engraved bannerstone. The bird effigy (5B) below was salvaged from a broken bannerstone (5A). It was notched in back, these notches (5B) are called tally marks. Finally, it was engraved on both sides (5C). Note the eye and wings present in the banding.
The mystery behind engraving and tally marks has always intrigued me. Why did they engrave and tally mark an item? Did it give the object special powers? Could it ward off evil spirits? Was it an offering to the good spirits? Was it a status item within the group? Was it a way to bless the object? Or, was it created as nothing more than a piece of art. These designs obviously meant something, but what? These questions will most likely never be fully answered. I would love to hear your theories regarding salvaging and engraving.
Next time I will discuss heavy duty tools created with Hardstone and Hematite.
Special thanks to Robert Converse for allowing me to use the atl-atl drawing (4A) from his book Archaeology of Ohio.