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Archaeologists are finally getting close to figuring out what an enigmatic stone age artefact was used for; more than 150 years after they were first discovered! Pierced sticks are what they sound like: a shaft (often made of antler) pierced at one end. They were first found back in 1867, by Édouard Lartet, a French archaeologist, and Henry Christy, his British backer1.
Lartet and Christy thought these sticks were a sign of power, perhaps owned by the leader of a tribe. Hence getting the name “bâton de commandement“.
Since then dozens more of these sticks have been discovered. With them have come nearly 40 hypotheses about what they were used for, ranging from artistic (some, like Lartet and Christy’s, are decorated very beautifully) to functional (many show signs of having something threaded through them)1,2.
But the age isn’t what’s notable about these tools. Instead, it’s the fact they were heavily used; perhaps because the material they were made of was hard to find making them difficult to replace. They’re made of reindeer antler, but no reindeer bones have been found in the cave1,3.
Pierced sticks pierce the mystery
Given this extensive use, Lucas et al. have been able to reconstruct the pierced sticks’ chaîne opératoire; which is the fancy French way of saying “life history”. Their work, published in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, shows that the sticks did indeed have something threaded through them. It was most likely rope, based on the wear and tear in the perforation1.
In fact, that wear and tear was pretty extreme. The sticks were actually deformed by the rope that was running through them, indicating they were holding something heavy. The chaîne opératoire indicates the manufacturers then went back to the sticks, touching up the holes to compensate for this deformation1.
However, despite this repair, one of the sticks eventually broke. Which is notable because experimental archaeology has shown it would take hefting something ~10 kg heavy 2 meters into the air to break reindeer antler in this manner. In fact, 3/4 of the pierced sticks found by archaeologists are broken, suggesting they were routinely used for heavy lifting1.
Yet that might not have been their only purpose. The Gough’s Cave sticks also contain scratches on the shaft, sort of like a grip to allow them to be handheld. However, hefting something 10 kg 2 meters into the air by hand isn’t easy. This suggests that they were used as part of some greater apparatus for lifting heavy things, but also could be used by hand1.
Of course, that’s only half the mystery.
What were they carrying?
Given the range of pierced sticks found, it’s unlikely they were all used in the same way. However, the finds from Gough’s Cave, combined with the prevalence of broken pierced sticks, suggests many were used with a rope to lift something heavy.
What did this apparatus look like? What were they lifting? With pierced sticks stretching back for most of Homo sapiens‘ time in Europe, there’s also likely some variation here. People at the peak of the last ice age might not have been picking up the same stuff as the people 5,000 years earlier at Gough’s Cave.
However, the consistency in design does suggest they may have had a similar function. Which raises the question, what heavy thing would people have had to pick up across this entire period? Given the ropes, at what they were attached to, has long since decayed we’ll probably never know. But we can wildly speculate.
Or in the case of my pet theory, adorably speculate:
Lucas, C., Galway-Witham, J., Stringer, C.B. and Bello, S.M., 2019. Investigating the use of Paleolithic perforated batons: new evidence from Gough’s Cave (Somerset, UK). Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, pp.1-25.
Rigaud, A., 2001. Les bâtons percés: décors énigmatiques et fonction possible. Gallia préhistoire, 43(1), pp.101-151.
Currant, A.P., 1986. The lateglacial mammal fauna of Gough’s Cave, Cheddar, Somerset. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society, 17(3), pp.286-304.