Birdstones are some of the most rare and mysterious artifacts found in the archaeological record of North America. These small stone carvings depict creatures with bird like features, and range in size from 1 to 9 inches in length. Most birdstones are made of slate, although some examples are made from limestone and even granite. Only 5,000 birdstones exist, including broken examples, odds are certainly against finding one. Birdstones are primarily found in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and New York, but do turn up all down the eastern seabord in ancient Native Amreican sites and burials.
Although the exact function of birdstones is not known, there have been good cases made for their use as hunting totems for goood luck, flute blocks, atlatl weights, and even symbols of marriage and fertility. Most birdstone are drilled front and rear, with connecting holes at right angles to allow attachment with cords. The holes aren't very big, and wouldn't allow secure attachment for rough use, but would work well enough to attach to clothing for decoration, or maybe a staff, or hat...no one knows for sure, though!
After reading everything I could find about birdstones and the theory on their use, I found the theory below, written by Geoffrey Sea, and I must say, I like his theory the best, and I'm going with it until I read a better one.... Birdstones as Soul Carriers!!!!! -Willly B.
Nestlings: A Complete Theory of Birdstones
Birdstones, specific to the Great Lakes region and to the period from the Late Archaic to the Middle Woodland, generate mystery. Even if we grant that they were shamanic devices used in some connection to mortuary practices (Ray Vietzen’s theory), there remain the questions about their form.
Why are they so birdlike but not exactly birds? (All lack wings, some look more like mollusks -- see graphic 3 -- or dogs, and some have four legs.) What are the pop-eyes on so many specimens? And why was the chosen material typically either banded slate or porphyry –two types of stone that exhibit two or more colors and were rarely used for other types of artifacts? The fine finish on most specimens marks them as aesthetic objects, but if so, why are they representationally so unclear? If you want to venerate some bird, why not depict the damned bird?
First, let’s dispense with the idea that these were atlatl weights or flute blocks, as is so often suggested. These are both adapted uses by later Indians who themselves had no idea why the birdstones had been manufactured. Birdstone flute blocks were a post-contact innovation modeled on the recorders brought by Spanish and French colonizers. The discovery of one birdstone in connection with an atlatl in Tennessee confirms this, as Tennessee was well beyond the territory of birdstone manufacture; that particular birdstone had likely been acquired by trade.
I have long associated birdstones with the Passenger Pigeon because the map of birdstone finds corresponds almost precisely with the map of the pigeon’s nesting range (I’ve posted both maps here previously). Many of the birdstones also exhibit distinctive dovetails, when any kind of tail is suggested. The heavy concentration of birdstone finds in the Great Black Swamp area of northwestern Ohio also suggests a connection to passenger pigeon nesting, along the Maumee River, the name of which means pigeon.
But if these objects were meant to look like pigeons, the resemblance is pretty lousy. The distinctive shapes we associate with pigeon heads, beaks, and wings just isn’t there.
Now I think I know why. The answer lies in the realization that I’ve discussed here recently that many of the zoomorphic forms of Adena artwork show juveniles rather than adults, under the logic that associates death with cosmic rebirthing. The reborn body will resemble a fetal or juvenile animal, not an adult, as made familiar by the brilliant “Star Child” fetus at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The birdstones are pigeon hatchlings or perhaps even embryos.
Pigeon hatchlings are ungainly things, often described as amorphous blobs of fat and proto-feathering, which gave rise to the name “squab” for a baby pigeon, from a Norse word that means “blob of fat.” In the early stages, the wings are entirely undeveloped, the beaks are straight and unpigeon-like, and the eyes bulge hugely. That is, they have pop-eyes as can be seen in graphics 4, 5 and 6. (4 is a domestic pigeon squab; 5 and 6 are mourning dove squabs, the nearest living relative to the passenger pigeon.) Graphic 3 is one of the few photographs of a passenger pigeon squab.
Suddenly, the features of birdstones – even the mollusk-shaped ones – start to make sense. And the two-color character of the material used for birdstones matches the two-color character of young squabs who have golden proto-feathering against gray skin. A common material for birdstones was a rare kind of porphyry that has tan or cream-colored spots on gray background, matching the coloring of young squabs. Two examples pictured here are from Indiana and Michigan.
This all may seem nonsensical if the assumption is that the birdstones were merely symbolic – “religious” objects intended for “veneration.” That’s not at all what I’m proposing. I propose that the birdstones were practical devices for transferring the souls of the dead to living birds. Based on the circumstances of most birdstone finds, it is probable they were actually placed in passenger pigeon nests during the enormous colonial nestings, some of which extended over hundreds of square miles. The concept of a soul-carrier or transmission device is well-attested in Algonquian folklore.
Such a device would be needed since death was most often not conveniently arranged in accord with pigeon nestings in time and space. What I conjecture is that, at or near time of death, a person’s spirit would be transferred to the birdstone by tying the birdstone to the person’s head (as proposed by Vietzen), with facilitation by a shaman. Then, in the springtime, when the pigeons would nest, the birdstones would be collected and brought to the nesting grounds, and placed in the nests. The cords used to tie the birdstones to the head (through holes in the birdstones) could then be tied to the branches of the nests to secure them.
The spirits of the departed would thus be transferred to the live pigeon eggs and hatchlings, ready to undertake the northward summer migration.
This would explain a number of features of the birdstones. It would explain how the shapes and colors are designed for camouflage, but are not so distinct as to suggest a real bird, which would obviously be frightening to the pigeons. Birdstone design would have evolved on an empirical basis, based on what was best accepted by the pigeons, explaining the evolution of some odd designs. The pop-eyes, especially, which appear more frequently in later specimens, may have been a feature that the pigeons recognized as squab-like. The artistry involved would be more similar to the practical craft of making bird decoys than to the aesthetic s of religious art.
One noticeable quality of birdstones is that they perfectly fit the hand as if they are made to be handles, a use that has been suggested especially for the bust-type birdstones, which may have been the handles for funerary vessels. But I think it more likely that the handle quality enabled the literal “laying on of hands” by shamans while the birdstones were tied to subjects. Their design can therefore be seen as combining the stylized representation of a squab with a form suitable for a shaman’s manipulation.
This explains why birdstones are so seldom found in graves, though they otherwise seem connected to the mortuary cult of the Late Archaic and Early Woodland periods. Usually, birdstones are found singly apart from other artifacts. And this explains why birdstones were phased out as they were replaced by the more elaborate mortuary practices of the Middle Woodland period, and the apparent use of other types of materials as “soul carriers.”
Photos courtesy Lithics Casting Lab
What are they??