A Birdstone in the Hand: Prehistoric Artifacts at Auction

A miniature slate birdstone. Well banded with a low slung head and no evidence of drilling. Ohio.   There are unsung heroes among us, people who devote their lives to collecting, cataloguing and organizing categories of things that most of us aren’t even aware exist.  Earl Townsend, Jr., who died in 2007, was such a man.  He spent much of his life compiling one of the finest collections in the United States of prehistoric stone relics of American Indians, including, at one time, more than 600 birdstones.

Townsend’s collection, which sold in December of 2011, was filled with these enigmatic objects.  Birdstones, like the one pictured above, are so called because they are all similar in their form, which resembles a bird.  Birdstones pop up occasionally, very occasionally, in the South, even less frequently west of the Mississippi, and the vast majority of them are found in the Ohio Valley and around the Great Lakes.  Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and New York have produced most of them.  Any stone could be used, but they are predominantly made from a banded slate.  The real mystery is their purpose and archaeologists have proposed a wide variety of theories from vague ceremonial usages to a function as a spear or atlatl weight to gender-related headdresses.  They clearly involved a great deal of work and effort and were a challenge to fashion, and as if this alone were not evidence of their value to the prehistoric societies in which they were made, they are/were often found in graves and burial mounds.  We may never have an answer to their larger purpose, but collections like this lay incredible foundations for the development of future work and theories.  Scholars of the future stand on the shoulders of people like Earl Townsend, Jr.