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The Enigmatic Birdstone

Birdstones have been long prized by art and artifact collectors. Many consider these exquisitely beautiful stones to be the pinnacle of prehistoric North American art. Their sensuously smooth lines and abstract designs are part of their appeal but they are also exceedingly rare and becoming increasingly valuable.

Birdstones are small abstract bird effigies ranging in size from about 3-6 inches (7.5-15 cm) in length. They were most commonly made of greenish-banded slate but also of porphyry, quartzite, granite, and even copper. No two are exactly alike but most generally have the characteristics of a bird. Some, however, look more like dogs, lizards, or turtles but the artform as a whole is generally described as ‘birdstone.’

Birdstones first appeared in the middle Archaic period around 5,000 years ago and continued into the early Woodland period to about 2,500 years before present. Some have been uncovered in burial sites and mounds but most have been simply found laying in fields and along bodies of water.

The vast majority of these stones have been found in the regions surrounding the Great Lakes, from Minnesota to the eastern seaboard and as far south as Georgia. The epicenter of discoveries has been in northeastern Indiana, northwestern Ohio, southeastern Michigan and the southwestern Ontario.

The most common design is a bird with a slender body and neck, often with ridges on top or below. Many have stalked ‘pop eyes.’ In the early Woodland period, a ‘bust’ type appeared consisting of only the bird’s head and shoulders. Most are flat on the bottom while others have feet but they almost always have a pair of perforations drilled into their bases which infers that they would have been fastened on to something.

But what?

The theories are endless

One of the more accepted ideas is that they served as weights or handle grips on ancient spear-throwing sticks called atlatls. Some thought they were worn by men, attached to a plate and fixed to the hair. Others stated that the ornaments were worn on the heads of Indian women but only after marriage and may have symbolized a brooding bird.

Maybe they were attached to pipe stems or flutes, canoe prows and gunnels, or maybe they were game bag and quiver fetishes. Some birdstones resemble swimming ducks lending credence to the idea that they were decoy effigies; their popped-out eyes might have given the bearer better visual acuity. Corn husking devices, maternity charms, conception aids, gaming devices?

The guesses go on and on. No one alive has any connection to the Archaic period so who knows for sure?

It’s not a stretch to imagine a birdstone as an amulet or a talisman. Birds have been spiritual inspirations for millennia. Maybe they were just created as pure expressions of art, pleasing baubles carved out on endless nights around the campfire, destined, perhaps, to be a love offering.

As admired as they must have been in prehistoric times, they are no less desired today. If any of these stones could see what they were fetching at auction recently, their eyes would certainly pop out some more!

The famous Townsend North American artifact collection went up for auction in 2013 and the highlight was the sale of 54 birdstones; two of them sold for $130,000 each and seven others brought in over $50,000 each! Soon after, the ‘Smithsonian’ birdstone, a nice piece made of porphyry found in Wisconsin in 1882, sold for over $800,000.

Fakes abound

With those kinds of prices, you won’t be surprised to know that

he market is apparently flooded with fakes.

It’s difficult to tell the difference between genuine and reproduction because so few real birdstones are available for study. Fakers can take detailed drawings and photographs of the best specimens at museums and make copies in the correct kind of stone, apply some patina and weathering, and pass them off as the real thing. Experts can pick out most impostors but some of them are so good, it’s almost impossible to tell.

The authentic ones are in museums and private collections so the likelihood of getting a real one cheap on Ebay is highly unlikely, yet every week, several are on offer and are selling for big bucks.

Your best bet for acquiring a real birdstone is to purchase one from a reputable collector or to hit a freshly plowed field and start looking for your own. You may be out there for a while, though, as one collector estimates that there are about two million arrowheads found for each birdstone discovered! He estimates less than 5,000 authentic birdstones have ever been uncovered.

One avid collector, Stephen Dowell, wrote of his admiration for birdstones while studying a specimen:

“As I sat there, bird in hand, I could not help but to marvel at it. I did not want to let it go. It was like having to tell a loved one goodbye. True, the banded slate it is made of is beautiful. True, the symmetry is out­standing, and true, the history behind it would stagger the mind of any collector interested in the history of this fine hobby of ours… The mystery of… one of the most interesting artifacts ever left be­hind by early North American man generates the extreme interest I have in birdstones.”

We may never know the true meaning or purpose of these prehistoric enigmas but can still enjoy them for their subtle beauty and mystery.


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