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Spuds and Spats

LATE WOODLAND, MISSISSIPPIAN & HISTORIC RITUAL STONE AXES KNOWN AS SPUDS

BY PETER A. BOSTROM

 

Most writers, collectors, and archaeologists seem to be using the word spud more often now; however, when you look at articles written nearly a hundred years ago, the name certainly has been controversial. In fact, many different names have been used over the years to describe stone spuds. The reason probably relates to a lack of knowledge, because no one can say with certainty for what they were used. We do know that these ancient objects are very rare elite status objects. Some of the names that have been used are puds, spuds, stone spuds, chert spuds, ceremonial spuds, spatulate spuds, spatulates, flared celts, ceremonial batons, ceremonial axes, ceremonial celts, ceremonial spades, spade ceremonials, stone ceremonials, elongated axe heads, ritual axes, spud-shaped implements, paddle-shaped implements, paddle-shaped spuds, and even bark peelers. However, spud and stone spud are the names most often used in recent years. The most obvious problem with the word spud is that it also means "a potato" and that is what often comes to mind first when the word is mentioned.

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In the past, Warren K. Moorehead was the most outspoken writer against the use of the word spud. In 1910 he wrote in The Stone Age in North America, Vol. 1.

Permit me to register a protest against the word `spud' which is suggestive of a heavy iron implement in the hands of a laborer. It is supposed that the word `spud' is retained because no one has proposed a good substitute." Again in 1917 in Stone Ornaments of the American Indian he writes "The term `spatulate,' as previously stated, was given me by Professor Charles H. Forbes, to take the place of the wretched word `spuds,' which is suggestive of a heavy iron implement in the hands of an Italian laborer" (he added the word Italian in his later book). But in recent years, people seem to be complaining less about the use of the word spud. Only spud collectors still wonder why the word is still used. Since it also means "a spade-shaped tool", it is probably the best descriptive word that can be used, especially if you compare the ones with round handles, which look very much like a spade in outline. If spuds are so well recognized as ceremonial objects, it seems that the term "ritual axe" would be a more distinguished title.

Spuds, or ritual axes, represent one of the finest crafted flaked, pecked, ground, and polished stone artifacts produced during the Late Woodland, Mississippian and early Historic periods. They represent a very rare artifact type. Many of the examples illustrated in this Journal relate, by their style, to the Cahokia site in Illinois, the Spiro site in Oklahoma, Caddoan sites in Arkansas, and the stone varieties from the southeastern United States. Several spuds have been found in and around the Cahokia Mounds site. Cahokia craftsmen were probably one of the main sources for these items. Cahokia style spuds were being traded to people living hundreds of miles away. Sporadic finds of spuds have been reported as far away as Canada.

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From an article in an early Wisconsin Archeologist, that is referred to by Moorehead and that must have been written at the turn of the last century, Charles E. Brown describes three main classifications of spuds. For Class A he includes the longest spuds. These spuds have broad, semi-circular blades that angle 90 degrees out from the handle, or have blade shoulders that slope downward, or have barbs that angle upwards towards the handle. Class A spuds have long handles that are either circular or elliptical in cross-section. Some of them have been described as "broom handles" or "rattails". They range in size up to 223/4 inches long.

Class B spuds include most of the examples illustrated here. Brown describes them as "Blade generally short, crescent-shaped or oval, convex or flat, reduced to a sharp cutting edge, shoulder when present also partially edged; handle generally of short or medium size, of nearly uniform width, circular, elliptical, less frequently square or somewhat rectangular in cross-section."

For Class C spuds, Brown includes all of the wide, flat stemmed and perforated examples from the southeastern states, and from Arkansas through Tennessee, Mississippi and farther east. He describes them as "broad, flattish implements" with "blade broad, nearly circular, elliptical or semi-elliptical in shape, edge fairly thick and smooth, or thin and sharp, shoulders rounded or sharply pointed; handle narrower than the blade, flat or convex, sides straight or curved, parallel or slightly tapering to the top."

Spuds apparently date to the end of the Woodland period where they have been surface collected on Jersey Bluff sites. However, reliable dates are not available because they have not been found on excavated sites. Jersey Bluff spuds were pecked and ground from granite and differ in shape from those found at Cahokia. Spuds were made, in various forms, throughout the Mississippian period. By the time Europeans arrived in North America, a new form of spud had begun to appear—these are the wide stemmed & perforated Class C type of spuds. B.W. Stephens reports, "Frequently this type of axe has been discovered in mound burials with historic material, such as Venetian glass beads, bronze sleigh bells, copper powder buckets, glass rum bottles and other historic objects." He also writes that "Very likely the battle axe of the early Spanish solders was the incentive that prompted the Indian to imitate in stone this broad blade weapon that captured his primitive fancy." An estimated date for all spuds might range between A.D. 720 to 1650.

Stone spuds were made from several different kinds of materials. Included in this list are the thin, wide and perforated type C spuds from the southeastern states. Spuds were made from Burlington chert, Kaolin flint, steatite, slate, quartzite, fine-grained sandstone, diorite, and fine-grained greenstone. The two basic types of materials used were chert and granite.

Spuds were made in two different ways. The long broom handle type A, the flat and wide Class C and the Jersey Bluff type spuds were made from materials that do not flake well. They were made the way some celts were made, by pecking them into shape with a hammerstone, then finishing the surface by grinding and polishing. The Cahokia type B chert spuds were first flaked into shape, then they were ground and polished.

Stone spuds are represented by a wide range of shapes and sizes. It is obvious that the form from which the earliest spuds found on Jersey Bluff sites developed was from celts. The flared bit variety of celt seems to be the pattern from which both Jersey Bluff and Cahokia spuds developed. In fact, some flared bit celts are the same size and shape as some spuds. The only difference between the two is the quality of stone and the degree of surface polish. B.W. Stephens writes in 1954, "It is obvious that the highly developed spatulate specimens are directly associated with the common forms of celts."

We know that celts were hafted like axes because examples have been found with wooden handles still attached. There are pictographs on stone outcrops that show axes with handles, and there are also stone carved monolithic axes that illustrate them in three-dimensional sculptures. C.B. Moore also reported seeing "marks left by a handle" on at least two Class C spuds from Alabama. Some Jersey Bluff spuds also have a rougher surface in the hafting area for a better grip. It is logical to assume that most spuds were probably hafted onto handles. At least one hafted spud is illustrated in a pictograph at Madden Creek in Washington County, Missouri. It shows a very elaborate handle.

Spuds have been found in a wide range of sizes. One of the largest is known as the "Grove Spud". It was found by a farmer in 1963 near the Cahokia Mounds site. It is made of compact greenstone and measures 181/2 inches long. Moorehead illustrates a small spud measuring only 31/8 inches long, and he quotes Brown, " . . . the largest known example measuring 223/4 inches in length." The larger examples are Class A spuds. The smallest example is a class B spud.

Gerard Fowke wrote that "they (spuds) bear no marks of rough usage." B.W. Stephens writes, concerning Class C spuds, that "Occasionally the blade of some of these axes (he refers to them as ceremonial axes) show a small chip broken from the blade . . . . Many of these chips indicate that the Indian reworked such damage by smoothing out the chip by grinding and polishing." Many spuds do seem to have been damaged along the bit, and some of them were repaired. A percentage of them were being used in a way that did cause their blade edges to become damaged, but the wear pattern on most spuds is not the same as on tools that were being used for wood working and agriculture.

Many different theories have been suggested for the use of stone spuds, but some of them do not seem very logical. Moorehead relates some of the accounts Dr. Joseph Jones took from different people. One suggestion was that they were used in agriculture, " ... the flat head being employed as a spade and the round handle for making small holes in the earth for the deposit of Indian corn." Another suggestion is that " ... they were used to strip bark from trees."

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Some of the more logical explanations for the use of spuds fall into two categories. They are most often described as ceremonial or display axes that were never used for anything except ritual events. Another explanation, at least for some of them, is that they were used as weapons. Class B spuds are especially comparable in size and weight to battleaxes from northern Europe. Dr.Joseph Jones is quoted, early in the last century, as saying, "It's possible that they (spuds) may have been used . . . as warlike weapons, since it would be easy to cleave or fracture the human skull with a single blow from one of these stone implements."

More than likely, spuds were used for a number of different purposes. Some of the lesser quality spud-like objects that Class C might be hard to differentiate between a flared bit celt and a true spud, were probably used as utilitarian tools. Others, especially the very large and delicate Class A examples, were probably ritual objects used as display items, or were special offerings to the dead, much like Hopewell Ross blades and other exotic burial items. Still others may have been used in the same way European battleaxes or metal trade axes were used—as weapons. Very small examples, between three and four inches, may have been worn like jewelry or used as toys.

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Whatever anyone thinks or believes about spuds, one thing is certain—they must have been important to the Late Woodland and Mississippian people that made and used them. They took special care to select the best color and quality of stone. The highly developed, artistic shapes and polished surfaces indicate that these items were made to impress people. Well, over a thousand years later, they are still impressing people!