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BIRDSTONES

By William S. Koup, G.I.R.S. Associate Editor
And Richard Sisson, G.I.R.S. Member
With Contributions by Steve Fuller, G.I.R.S. Member


For over 150 years, birdstones have been objects that have inspired great passion, desire, and collecting zeal among art and artifact collectors. These small but magnificent creations from the hands of prehistoric North American artisans have inspired people from all walks of life to spend decades pursuing these often elusive creations to add to their collections. Fanners, factory workers, plumbers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, and industrialists have all entered into this competitive world in pursuit of another example to add to their collection. A few of these collectors have had the means and wherewithal to collect whatever form of art they desired. It could have been canvasses by famous artists, rare coins, or classic automobiles, but birdstones became the primary objects of their pursuit. Why? It is a fact that birdstones are rare, and rarity breeds a competitiveness to possess. But birdstones retain qualities that are far more sophisticated and cerebral than merely being few in number. Birdstones exemplify some of the highest artistic achievements of the prehistoric North American artisan! Some may argue the same for the entire prehistoric world. It is in this light that the writers, editors, and collectors represented in the pages of this special issue of Prehistoric American hope for a greater understanding and wider appreciation for the exquisite beauty of birdstones.

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Birdstones constitute a form of ancient art distinctive to the peoples who lived in the region of North America largely bounded by the Great Lakes and the watershed of the Ohio River, centered largely in what is now the American Midwest. Ancient peoples of other world regions created artful and expressive effigies, both life-like and abstract, but not birdstones. Birdstones were most surely prized by those who made them and by those who possessed them, given the aesthetic eye, technical skill, and time that was required to create them. Their cultural importance is suggested by the prevalence of salvaged examples, especially heads, that were refinished in ancient times for further ritual employment or ornamental use.

Systematic consideration of birdstones has been episodic since they were first brought to popular attention in the mid-19th century (Squier and Davis, 1848). This may be explained in part because birdstones have rarely been found in archaeological context. They are usually found on the surface of the ground and along or near bodies of water. Exceptions to this include the range of types found in certain sites of the Glacial Kame and, rarely, the bust types found in Adena and Hopewell mounds. Birdstones have reposed initially and primarily in private collections, and the vast majority from museum collections have been acquired from private collections. Though sporadic, the literature includes a number of important contributions made since the late 19th century (including Moorehead, 1899; Hodge, 1907; Brown, 1909; Johnston, 1954; and Baldwin, et. al., 1982/1983). The most consequential work of which being Earl C. Townsend, Jr.'s, Birdstones of the North American Indian, (1959).

Our efforts in this article are devoted to developing a birdstone typology that will hopefully help order our thinking and facilitate communication among those who study and appreciate birdstones, as well as those who want to learn more about them. Along with the typology, a discussion of the various types of eyes found on birdstones will be presented.

I. The Significance of Contributions from the Past

A common observation from the beginning has been that no two birdstones are alike. They are similar, but not the same. They come in a myriad of shapes, styles, and sizes. They range in the treatment of their body form, their head and neck, and their tail. Some have ridges underneath on the base; others do not. Most are perforated at the base on the front and the back; others are not. Some show considerable wear, while others do not. Many early commentators through Townsend (1959) and Baldwin and Townsend (1982/1983) have observed that there are many birdstones that do not look much like birds at all, but have the appearance of various creatures that roam the earth and cruise its waters. Were one to create a matrix running the range of each of these variables against the others, the result would be uncontrollably complex. Our thought is predicated on the assumption, however, that there exist commonalities in a wide range of birdstones, and it is useful to develop a framework that may facilitate comparison, study, and appreciation.

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Four studies are particularly instructive with respect to defining types of birdstones. An early and elementary attempt to classify birdstones was offered by Moorehead (1899) in the form of "the four or five variations" he envisioned, set forth with a limited number of images, but without incisive description and elaboration. Two decades later he provided marginal elaboration (Moorehead, 1917, p. 81) where he suggested five types:

  1. 1. "the ordinary bird-stone";
  2. 2. "the bird-stone with slender body, neck, and head specialized";
  3. 3. "bird-stone with short body";
  4. 4. "bird-stone with wide body and large ears"; and
  5. 5. "the variations to another type". The formulation suggests a range of long, medium, and short, wide bodies with ears, and others. For an audience that had minimal exposure to birdstones, this provided a useful initiation, but missed much that is distinctive about form and material.