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ABSTRACT STONE SCULPTURES OF ANCESTORS: EXAMPLES FROM PREHISTORIC NORTH AMERICA

By Richard Michael Gramly, PhD
American Society for Amateur Archaeology
North Andover, Massachusetts

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe inspiration for this paper is a remarkable pair of ground stone sculptures measuring 19" and 16 " in length from Monroe County, northeastern Mississippi, which reside in the collection of David Walley, Fulton, Mississippi (Figure 1). We surmise that they were unearthed from a mound of the Benton archaeological culture in Monroe County (Figure 2) dating to the Middle Archaic period. It is thought that Benton developed at the end of a warmer and drier Hypsithermal Interval as climatic conditions began to ameliorate (McNutt 2008). In all likelihood, these sculptures were created between 4000 and 4500 calendar years B.C.

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Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe fluorescence of Benton culture along the Tombigbee River and its tributaries is revealed by numerous caches of flaked stone bifaces — some being gigantic versions of the common Benton point and others being "turkeytails" 8" to 10" in length (Johnson and Brookes 1989). These over-sized objects, one presumes, were not employed for mundane tasks. On the other hand, there is no record of associated human remains, and I know of no large cached bifaces being dressed with red ochre.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalEven rarer than extra-large Benton points and turkeytails are elliptical (pointed oval) ground stone sculptures. Usually they are found in pairs at sites where large flaked stone bifaces also occur. Altogether, fewer than 10 sets are known to collectors and archaeologists; most are on record for the state of Mississippi (but see CSAJ 52-3: page 132 for an example purportedly from the state of Georgia). I intend to delve into the meaning of these enigmatic objects and others like them in eastern North America and among Old World cultures.

Human Geometry and Its Abstraction
Amateur Archaeologist JournalWe are indebted to Edmund Carpenter and Carl Schuster for a discussion of the ingenious ways pre-literate, traditional and ancient societies have portrayed the human body, procreation, and the succession of generations. Their ideas are outlined within the landmark work, Patterns That Connect, and here free use is made of them.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe sexual union of male and female can be represented as slightly overlapping circles with male on the left and female on the right. At the point of overlap the ascending and descending curved lines can be likened to the spread-eagled limbs of an human being with the ellipse forming a body trunk (Figure 3). A stylized spread-eagled human being as an isolated motif seldom occurs (but see Figure 4); usually it appears multiplied hundreds of times within complex, inter-linked arrays (Figure 5). These arrays are favorites of textile weavers who see them as a challenge to their skill. A shorthand way of representing sexual union and progeny is to draw a simple ellipse, which stands for a body trunk. Arrays of linked ellipses (Figure 6) — just like inter-linked, spread-eagled human beings — express marriages and descent; on a grander scale both patterns show the inter-connections (relations) among all human beings.

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Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe Y-shaped intersection of arms and legs with a body trunk is itself sculpted in wood, antler, and stone and becomes a component in ceremonies. It is called a Y-form or Y-post. Y-shaped anthropomorphic ladders, which are usually quite functional, are carved by tribal craftsmen in New and Old Worlds (Figure 7). Some ladders and posts are decorated with concentric circles, concentric diamonds (lozenges) and ramiforms (Figure 8). What the meaning of these symbols may be to their creator can only be guessed. The steps of Y-post ladders, too, can be regarded as symbolic, decorative elements.

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Amateur Archaeologist JournalWe should not be surprised to learn that motifs appearing on Y-posts are sometimes transferred to elliptically-shaped artifacts such as shields (Figure 9), for, as we have stated, the ellipse may be taken to represent the human body. Therefore, we have the churingas or tjurungas of the Australian aborigines, which are covered with patterns of spirals, concentric circles and diamonds as well as segmented lines (Figure 10). It is thought that these motifs, which are distributed among aboriginal Australians across the sub-continent, are connected with totemic spirits, ancestors and mythic heroes who lived during "dream time."

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Churingas, Je-stones, and Equivalent Forms
Amateur Archaeologist JournalChuringas are defined as "oval, pointed oval [elliptical] and circular slabs of wood or stone, flattened and slightly convex, and generally coated with red ochre" (McCarthy 1966: 29). The word, which is an adjective or a noun, can be roughly translated as "sacred" or "sacred thing" (Hambly 1926: 24). They may bear engraved or painted designs on one, and sometimes on both, faces. Most wooden churingas are 9-16 inches in length, but specimens as long as 15-17 feet are known for Western Australia! Stone churingas are rarer than ones made of wood, and are generally wider and thicker, enabling designs to be cut deeply into their surfaces with less chance of breakage (see McCarthy 1966: Figure 16 and Australian Aboriginal Art 1929: 17 for examples).

Amateur Archaeologist JournalSuch important ceremonial artifacts, requiring considerable time and skill to manufacture, are kept in isolated storehouses at some distance from settlements. Remote rockshelters, many with ritually important designs painted upon them (Figures 11 and 12), are favorite places for secreting bundles of churingas. Caching churingas — particularly stone ones — by burying them in the earth might be practiced although I can find no mention of it.

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Amateur Archaeologist JournalAmong the Dugum Dani of the Belem Valley, Highland New Guinea we find counterparts of churingas. Through a trade with quarrymen who live at considerable distance from the Belem Valley, the Dani procure narrow, thin slabs of greenstone, varying in length from a foot to three feet. These symbolic stones are colloquially known as "je-stones" (Figure 13). Some are kept secreted within men's houses and are never taken outside and put on public view (Heider 1970; Hampton 1999). Others, however, are exhibited upon low platforms or benches made of fibre during funerals, weddings and other important social gatherings. The Dani placate the spirits of the dead by "inviting" them — through the medium of je-stones — to participate in events.

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Amateur Archaeologist JournalAlthough je-stones may be ornamented with bands of plaited fibre, feathers and fur, among the Dani they are not engraved with archaic motifs as are Australian churingas. Some stones in regions east of the Belem Valley are dressed with red ochre and other pigments. Painting them, even with a simple red stripe, renders them "sacred" and may restrict their usage in open places.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalMost je-stones are roughly oval or elliptical in shape with subtle. intentional asymmetry, and it is worth noting that similar asymmetry is also seen on some Australian churingas. One of the broad sides is usually flattened or slightly concave and is likened to a person's face or front; while, the other broad side, which is convex, is considered to be the je stone's "back." If one of the ends is more pointed, it is termed a stone's "head" and the opposite broader end the "buttocks" (Heider 1970: 288). By applying such anthropomorphic designations, it is clear that Dani regard these almost featureless stones as beings. They seem to be highly abstract embodiments of ancestral spirits. They are equivalent, in principle, to the simple ellipses that are formed when pairs of "male" and "female" circles intersect.

Bull-roarers
Amateur Archaeologist JournalAlthough churingas and je stones, as a class, effectively convey a message about human procreation and descent, their shapes are seldom as standardized as those of bull-roarers.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalAccording to Schuster and Carpenter (1996: 67) bull-roarers are known on every continent except South America. Generally, they are neatly-shaped ellipses or ovals having a hole, notches or knop at one end for affixing a cord (Figure 14). Their cross-section at right angles to the long axis is a flattened, thin oval — resembling in some respects an airfoil. A tapering cross-section is critical, for when a bull-roarer is spun rapidly using a cord, it turns on its long axis making a buzzing or roaring sound of low frequency. Among some traditional practitioners this curious noise is regarded as the "voice" of ancestral spirits. It draws attention to a sacred rite that may be in progress and warns persons who have no business there to leave the neighborhood.

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Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe oldest surviving bull-roarers are made of bone or antler and date to the Aurignacian archaeological culture of the European Upper Palaeolithic; slightly less ancient examples made of polished stone are known from European sites, as well (Schuster and Carpenter Ibid.). In North America bone and ivory bull-roarers were used in recent times by the Eskimo peoples (see J. G. E. Smith 1980: 84), and according to Hall (1983: 88) nineteenth century Navaho used flaked stone bifaces as bull-roarers during curative ceremonies. In general, stone bull-roarers may have been more commonly used during North American prehistory than is recognized. Examples among Middle and Late Archaic cultures have been overlooked or have been mis-classified. For example, the long elliptical "whetstones" with a hole at one end that are well-known for New England's Red Paint Culture (aka Moorehead Complex) — see Figure 15 — are considered to be whetstones despite Moorehead's cautions to the contrary (1922: 121):

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These pendants have been thought by some to be tool-sharpeners or special rubbing or polishing stones, but the materials of which they are made are too frail and soft to serve satisfactorily for grinding, and careful inspection of the surfaces fails to reveal any hollows or depressions due to continuous rubbing.

The largest of the Red Paint culture's suspected bull-roarers approach 50 cm (20 inches) in length (Bruce Bourque, personal communication; see also Moorehead 1922: Figure 35 for a specimen approaching that length); most, however, are half to two-thirds that size.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalOther possible examples of bull-roarers are turkeytail-shaped flaked stone bifaces of the Benton archaeological culture. The mean length of Benton turkeytails is 20-25 cm or 8-10 inches (Johnson and Brookes 1989: 136), which is about the same as Red Paint Culture bull-roarers. Instead of a drilled hole to accommdate a cord, Benton turkeytails have a pair, sometimes two, of side-notches at one end.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalIt is conceivable that some of the larger turkeytail flaked stone bifaces that are found in mortuary caches at Red Ochre sites of the Late or Terminal Archaic period (Converse 2003: 145-165) functioned as bull-roarers. Others may have been intended as knives. Such a duality in function for an elliptically shaped object is not out of the question — especially in mortuary contexts (see Hall 1983; Hagens no date).

Amateur Archaeologist JournalAlthough replicated bull-roarers of wood, 20-48 cm (8-19 inches) long and weighing at most 170 grams (six ounces) work very well — especially when their length/width and width/thickness ratios fall within a certain range (Dana Klein personal communication) — the question remains: Do heavier bull-roarers of flaked and polished stone function as noise-makers? I can offer no experimental results addressing this question, but it seems that many would be a challenge to spin because of their weight. Without the aid of a long handle to which the bull-roarer cord is affixed, a stone bull-roarer might move too slowly making no sound at all. An analogy would be trying to fly a very heavy airplane with a small, low-speed engine: There is insufficient lift to get the plane airborne.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalClearly, some bull-roarers were never intended to be spun by mortal human beings. The monstrous pair of Benton bull-roarers that I mentioned at the beginning of this presentation are good examples of non-functional bull-roarers. They are sculptures of bull-roarers or, if you will, "votive bull-roarers." By their shape alone, they represent human procreation, descent, and ancestors. Paired, side-by-side in the ground, and one slightly smaller than the other they represent sexually dimorphic male and female ancestors. This symbolism is obvious. Had they been dressed with red ochre — the color of the west and the realm of the dead — their spiritual identity would have been even more emphatic.

The Earliest Votive Bull-roarers
Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe Olive Branch site on the banks of the Mississippi River in Alexander County, southern Illinois, has yielded the earliest pair of votive bull-roarers in North America. Their age lies somewhere near the beginning of the 10th millenium B.P. radiocarbon, or roughly 12,000 calendar years (Gramly 2008). They appear to have been heirloom objects of the Dalton archaeological culture, which is well represented at this archaeological site.

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Amateur Archaeologist JournalThese large, heavy, almost tear drop-shaped, flaked stone sculptures were buried side-by-side within a red ochre-painted container made from a perishable substance — perhaps basketry, bark, or wood (Gramly 2004a, 2004b). The tips of both bifaces pointed upstream, and the larger artifact lay on the left (Figures 15-17). Their non-domestic nature is underscored by the location of edge-grinding on them. It is presumed that edges of flaked stone bifaces are ground smooth in order to facilitate hafting. In the case of the Olive Branch biface pair, remarkably, grinding is at the center of the basal edge rather than along the sides. Obviously a cord extending from the notches touched each biface at the center of its base. Thus, provision had been made either for a looped cord handle or for a cord to swing them as bull-roarers. The great weight of these bifaces — each about a pound — likely made them impractical for noise-making.

Jump link to: captions and figures 15 to 18

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe red-painted container containing the bifaces had been interred within a Dalton ceremonial precinct. To judge by the many artifact caches of flaked stone points, adzes, and other objects that were unearthed within this part of the Olive Branch site (Gramly 2002, 2008) and by analogy to caches and human bone at the Sloan site in Arkansas (Morse 1987), this precinct was a cemetery.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalTo personify votive bull-roarers — themselves symbols of ancestors — by according them the same treatment as a pair of dead human bodies carries deep meaning. Perhaps the sculptures stood for all women and all men of the lineage of the Olive Branch site's inhabitants? To bury them in the warm sandy soil of the Mississippi's floodplain was, in my view, a bold statement of intention. The inhabitants had decided to make these fair lands bordering the most southerly rapids of America's mightiest river their own. There they put down roots. Heirs to a roaming and seasonally transhumant lifestyle that was pursued by their Palaeo-American forebears, these Early Americans had settled at last — forever.

References Cited

Anonymous

1929Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Australian Aboriginal Art. National Museum of Victoria. 39 pp.

2005Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Unusual Benton culture ceremonial of calcium carbonate (limestone). Central States Archaeological Journal 52(3): 132.

Converse, Robert N.

2003Amateur Archaeologist Journal

The Archaeology of Ohio. The Archaeological Society of Ohio. Columbus.

Gramly, Richard Michael

2002Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Olive Branch: A Very Early Archaic Site on the Mississippi River. Persimmon Press. North Andover, Massachusetts.

2004aAmateur Archaeologist Journal

Continuing discoveries at the Olive Branch site, Alexander County, Illinois.Ohio Archaeologist 54(1): 14-20.

2004bAmateur Archaeologist Journal

Thebes Gap: A new type of biface from the Mississippi Valley. Prehistoric American XXXVIII (4): 5-10.

2008Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Return to Olive Branch: Excavations 2002-2005. American Society for Amateur Archaeology. North Andover, Massachusetts.

Hagen, Berthe

n.d.Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Bullroarers — an article by Berthe Hagens. Internet posting at http://www.duckdigital.net/FOD/FOD1049.html.

Hall, R. L.

1983Amateur Archaeologist Journal

A pan-continental perspective on Red Ochre and Glacial Kame ceremonialism. Pp. 75-107 in Robert C. Dunnell and Donald K. Grayson (eds.) Lulu Linear Punctated: Essays in Honor of George Irving Quimby. Anthropological Papers, Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan 72. Ann Arbor.

Hambly, Wilfrid D.

1936Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Primitive Hunters of Australia. Field Museum of Natural History Anthropology Leaflet 32. Chicago.

Hampton, O. W.

1999Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Culture of Stone: Sacred and Profane Uses of Stone Among the Dani. Texas A&M University Press. College Station, Texas.

Heider, Karl G.

1970Amateur Archaeologist Journal

The Dugum Dani. Viking Fund Publications in Anthropology 49. Aldine Publishing Company. Chicago.

Johnson, Jay K. And Samuel O. Brookes

1989Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Benton points, turkey tails, and cache blades: Middle Archaic exchange in the Midsouth. Southeastern Archaeology 8(2): 134-145.

Klein, Dana

n.d.Amateur Archaeologist Journal

An open letter to Dr. R. Mike Gramly, CHIPS readers, Members of the GVPKA, Members of IACANE, Members of Ohio Lithics Society, and knappers at large. Personal communication.

McCarthy, F. D.

1966Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Australian Aboriginal Decorative Art (7th edition). The Australian Museum. Sydney.

McNutt, Charles H.

2008Amateur Archaeologist Journal

The Benton phenomenon and Middle Archaic chronology in adjacent portions of Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama. Southeastern Archaeology 27(1): 45-60.

Moorehead, Warren K.

1922Amateur Archaeologist Journal

A Report on the Archaeology of Maine. The Andover Press. Andover, Massachusetts.

Morse, Dan

1987Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Sloan: A Paleoindian Dalton Cemetery in Arkansas. Smithsonian Institution Press. Washington, D. C.

Schuster, Carl and Edmund Carpenter

1996Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Patterns That Connect. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. New York.

Smith, J. G. E.

1980Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Arctic Art: Eskimo Ivory. Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation. New York

Captions & Figures

Figure 1. Photographs of a remarkable pair of Benton ground stone sculptures in the collection of David Walley, Fulton, MS. Fragmentation either was deliberate or a result of natural weathering in the soil. Unknown sedimentary (?) stone. Lengths = 48.3 and 42 cm (19 and 1/8 inches; 16 inches). Widths = 12.5 and 8.9 cm (5 inches; 3 inches). Thicknesses (maximum) = 1.9 and 1.4 cm (.73 inches; .53 inches). Note the pair of ground notches at the end of the larger sculpture.
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Photographs of a remarkable pair of Benton ground stone sculptures in the collection of David Walley, Fulton, MS Photographs of a remarkable pair of Benton ground stone sculptures in the collection of David Walley, Fulton, MS
Photographs of a remarkable pair of Benton ground stone sculptures in the collection of David Walley, Fulton, MS Photographs of a remarkable pair of Benton ground stone sculptures in the collection of David Walley, Fulton, MS

Figure 2. Location of Monroe County, MS and the Tombigbee River and its major tributaries.
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Location of Monroe County, MS and the Tombigbee River and its major tributaries

Figure 3. Sexual union of male and female with the offspring of the union being a spread-eagled human being standing upright.
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Sexual union of male and female with the offspring of the union being a spread-eagled human being standing upright

Figure 4. Micronesian wooden mask of post-WWII vintage with extended lip-lines forming a spread-eagled human being — an expression of sexual union and fertility. Height = 28 cm (11 inches). R. M. Gramly collection.
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Micronesian wooden mask of post-WWII vintage with extended lip-lines forming a spread-eagled human being — an expression of sexual union and fertility Micronesian wooden mask of post-WWII vintage with extended lip-lines forming a spread-eagled human being — an expression of sexual union and fertility

Figure 5. The spread-eagled human being as an element of a complex array. After Schuster and Carpenter 1996: 82, 154.
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The spread-eagled human being as an element of a complex array

Figure 6. Arrays of hocker-form human beings, with elliptical body trunks, representing descent and relatedness within a greater family of man (After Schuster and Carpenter 1996: 89).
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Arrays of hocker-form human beings,  with elliptical body trunks, representing descent and relatedness within a greater family of man

Figure 7. Dogon granary ladder of heavy accacia wood carved as a Y-post with its deeply cut steps as a ramiform representing fertility and successive human generations. Height = 1.91 m (75 inches). R. M. Gramly collection.
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Dogon granary ladder of heavy accacia wood carved as a Y-post with its deeply cut steps as a ramiform representing fertility and successive human generations Dogon granary ladder of heavy accacia wood carved as a Y-post with its deeply cut steps as a ramiform representing fertility and successive human generations

Figure 8. Motifs often appearing on Y-posts. Redrawn from Schuster and Carpenter 1996.
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Motifs often appearing on Y-posts. Redrawn from Schuster and Carpenter 1996

Figure 9. Ritual shield, worn on the left arm by a boy who has undergone circumcision, Gikuyu tribe, Highland Kenya. National Museum of Kenya collection. R. M. Gramly photograph. Approximate height = .9 m (3 feet).
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Ritual shield, worn on the left arm by a boy who has undergone circumcision, Gikuyu tribe, Highland Kenya

Figure 10. Churinga made of wood, carved with spirals and ramiforms, and dressed with red ochre. Likely from central desert of Australia. Collected before WW II. EX. Mike Francis, Victoria, Australia. Length = 30.5 cm (12 inches), width = 7.3 cm (2 7/8 inches). R. M. Gramly collection.
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Churinga made of wood, carved with spirals and ramiforms, and dressed with red ochre. Likely from central desert of Australia

Figure 11. Panel of ritually important motifs (filled ovals, ramiforms, etc.) painted on the ceiling of a rockshelter in Tanzania. Courtesy of National Museum of Kenya.
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Panel of ritually important motifs (filled ovals, ramiforms, etc.) painted on the ceiling of a rockshelter in Tanzania. Courtesy of National Museum of Kenya

Figure 12. Copying ritually important designs painted in red ochre upon the rear wall of site GvJm/16, Lukenya Hill, Machakos District, south-central Kenya. Photograph (1971) by R. M. Gramly.
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Copying ritually important designs painted in red ochre upon the rear wall of site GvJm/16, Lukenya Hill, Machakos District, south-central Kenya

Figure 13. Dressed je-stone, Dani, interior New Guinea Highlands. Pete Bostrom collection. Photo courtesy of Lithic Casting Lab, Troy, Illinois.
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Dressed je-stone, Dani, interior New Guinea Highlands. Pete Bostrom collection

Figure 14. Left, painted wooden bull-roarer from Irogo Village, NW Asmat, Irian Jaya (western New Guinea Island). Collected during the 1990s by Koos Knoll, Wormerveer, Netherlands. Length = Approx. 23 cm ( 9 inches). Weight = 25 grams. Such a light bull-roarer works best when the suspensory cord is attached to a handle. Right, well-used wooden bull-roarer from Australia with hole for suspension and a complex linear pattern engraved into one face. Length = 47 cm (16.5 inches). Weight = 106 grams. Both R. M. Gramly collection.
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painted wooden bull-roarer from Irogo Village painted wooden bull-roarer from Irogo Village

Figure 15. So-called whetstones from the Hathaway site, Maine (Moorehead 1922: Plate 35). These thin, fragile objects may have been bull-roarers. Length of the long specimen on the left is approximately 45 cm (18 inches).
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So-called whetstones from the Hathaway site, Maine

Figure 16. The pair of Very Early Archaic votive bull-roarers (Neralich Cache) in situ at the Olive Branch site, Alexander County, southern Illinois, August, 2003. The tips of the flaked stone bifaces point upriver. R. M. Gramly photograph.
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The pair of Very Early Archaic votive bull-roarers (Neralich Cache) in situ at the Olive Branch site, Alexander County, southern Illinois, August, 2003

Figure 17. The first ritual biface in the Neralich Cache to be discovered, August, 2003. Length approx. 27.7 cm (10.91 inches), weight 527 grams (1.16 pounds). It is made of Burlington chert. R. M. Gramly photograph.
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The first ritual biface in the Neralich Cache to be discovered, August, 2003

Figure 18. The second of the pair of ritual bifaces (Neralich Cache) to be discovered, shown in situ. Weight of locomotives passing over the cache caused this specimen to break in two. Colorful Burlington chert from northern Illinois or Iowa, length 278 mm (10.94 inches), weight 438 grams (slightly less than one pound). R. M. Gramly photograph.
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The second of the pair of ritual bifaces (Neralich Cache) to be discovered, shown  in situ


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