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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.

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.

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.

Similarly Brown (1909), who focused primarily on examples from Wisconsin, suggested four distinct classes of objects: (1) Class A – Bar Form, which essentially was limited to bar amulets; (2) Class B – Bird Form, which included most of all examples at the time known; (3) Class C – Specimens with Eyes; and (4) Class D -Others. It must be noted that neither Moorehead nor Brown had access to a wide reservoir of objects, and relied in many instances on sketches or photographs for their examination. While important as a beginning, these typologies are not sufficiently versatile to enable us to discriminate among the wide range of objects that have now come to be known.

A third and major contribution is that of LaDow Johnston in his two-part article in the Ohio Archaeologist (1954). Johnston had access to a far wider range of birdstones available for his personal examination than did his predecessors. He indicates having studied 719 Ohio examples out of the approximately 1,200 that he estimated existed, the remainder resting in private and museum collections at the time. While focusing on Ohio examples, he included many from other areas, particularly Indiana and Michigan, in his survey and analysis. In developing his classification, Johnston focused upon general body forms, and suggested that they constitute three types: (1) Type A – “Elongated and being lengthy in comparison to width”;

2. Type B – “Saddle, resembling a western saddle”; and

3. Type C – “Bust, having no body and being about as wide as it is tall or long”. He also endeavored to categorize the substantial variations with respect to birdstone eyes, in this regard going far beyond considerations previously published. With respect to this important dimension, he offered ten basic types: (1) Indented; (2) Nodular; (3) Conical; (4) Cylindrical; (5) Stemmed Button; (6) Ridge; (7) Top Knot; (8) Globular; (9) Engraved; and (10) Illusory (Johnston, 37-38). Johnston’s typology is a most suggestive one, but while lean and parsimonious—both valued qualities—in terms of form it does not account for certain body types normally encompassed by the birdstone family, nor does it attend the critical attributes of material, line, and color. This model, however, constitutes a useful platform from which to build. The fourth major contribution was offered by Townsend in his monumental Birdstones of the North American Indian. He did not propose formal categories, though he did observe at the end of Chapter 2, in response to the claim of some that birdstones were impervious to classification, that it would become quite apparent from examination of the images in his book “. . . that there are some definite similarities and differences among birdstones that relegate many of them quite readily to classes” (Townsend, 44). Rather than developing an overall set of categories or “classes”, Townsend organized all of his examples on the basis of the American states (25) and Canadian provinces in which they were found.

4. Within each state and province where numerous examples were portrayed (8), he organized them according to the length of body in comparison to its breadth, the “chunkiness” of the body, the length and nature of the point of the nose, the shape and the angle of the tail, the character of the neck, whether ridged underneath, whether perforated or not, the kind of material chosen for use, and other miscellaneous considerations. Each of the Plates contains a particular descriptive type created from a varying combination of the factors just enumerated, while in numerous Plates he describes examples of these effigies as being creatures of the earth and water rather than being forms of birds. What Townsend has provided, along with much else of interest and value, is a multitude of examples for comparison, reference, and study, as well as an exhaustive list of factors that might be employed in their categorization. At the time of this writing, the authors are unaware of anyone able to employ, let alone recite, each particular type Townsend has advanced. His series of descriptions, however, constitute a rich and invaluable reference point for both distillation and elaboration.

II. Typology of Birdstones: The Range in Body Form and Eyes

In the hands of collectors, birdstones are easily identifiable for what they are—a birdstone! Usually there is never a question regarding its identity as a birdstone. As discussed above, birdstones come in a myriad of shapes, styles, and sizes that often make them difficult to type or categorize. Discussing and writing about birdstones has been daunting due to the wide variations in types and styles. What one person may call a Nesting Birdstone, another may refer to as a Porphyry Popeye Birdstone, while still another may refer to it as a Saddle Birdstone. For several generations of birdstone collecting, a common but sometimes confusing vernacular has evolved for speaking about and writing about birdstones. Much of this terminology has been meaningful and productive, but some has been vague and confusing. The following birdstone typology is being offered in the hope that it will help clarify and synthesize what has come before. In the past, as now, birdstone attributes have determined the type. The form of the body, shape of the tail, eyes, material, and cultural affiliation have all contributed to the creation of birdstone categories or types.

That brings us to this question. Should there be a birdstone classification system? Our answer would be “Yes”. To have a usable typology or nomenclature in which all can refer to specific examples of birdstones that all will understand is important. It is also important to provide the beginning student and collector of birdstones a frame of reference for learning and speaking about birdstones and their attributes. For the purposes of this issue, the following types have been identified and have been generally accepted into the vernacular of birdstone collecting, discussions, and writing. These types should not be viewed as definitive and/ or comprehensive, but they will be amenable or adaptable for most birdstones.

It could easily be argued for twice as many named categories, but splitting hairs and adding to an already confusing nomenclature would be counterproductive of our purposes here. Be aware that many birdstones will never conveniently fit into these or any other categories. Many birdstones are combinations of two or more categories. Some are just unique! However, we feel these categories will work well for the majority of birdstones.

In order for any birdstone classification system to be successful, it must be tactile in character or physically descriptive. In other words, the actual physical characteristics of each individual birdstone should determine the type without regard to the material from which it is constructed. Would a person who is totally blind, but knowledgeable about birdstones, be able to recognize the type of birdstone he is holding without any regard to the material from which it is made? If yes, then the classification system may be deemed a success. Following is an outline of birdstone types with a brief discussion of each.

It will be quickly noted by many that Glacial Kame has not been named as a type in this system of classification. Glacial Kame is a specific culture and should not be used as a type. Yes, the Glacial Kame people are well known for making magnificent birdstones, many having similar physical characteristics, but far too many of their creations were of distinctly different form so do not allow for the use of the term Glacial Kame as a specific physically descriptive type. It also should be noted that there are certain specific regions in North America that have produced specific styles of birdstones that have been given names attributable to where they were found. These would include Boxheads from the Northeast United States and Ontario, Canada; Southeastern style from Tennessee and North Carolina; Wisconsin style; and others.