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Decorated equipment: symbols of power, status or belief?

During the period from about 17,000 to 12,000 years ago engraved drawings, patterns and sculpted forms spread onto many items of functional, everyday equipment most notably perforated antler batons and hooked spear throwers.

Perforated batons are made from antler. They have more or less cylindrical shafts that widen at one end where there is at least one hole. The first example of such an implement was discovered in excavations under the rockshelter at Le Veyrier, Haute-Savoie, France during the 1830s but this was not mentioned in a publication until 1878 by which time French palaeontologist Edouard Lartet and his English collaborator Henry Christy had described a number of such pieces from their excavations in the Dordogne. In their description they noted that these objects are ‘ornamented with careful and very numerous carving’ and ‘might have been either symbols of authority, or simply marks of social position … used as sceptres of command, or as symbols of rank’. From this they concluded that the hunters of the Périgord ‘were already numerous and in a social condition so far systematized that the authority of chiefs, or of the unequal conditions of society were recognized and shown by external sign’. It was from this assertion that the French term bâton de commandement suggesting a symbol of power was coined later in the twentieth century and became common in the literature although the less prescriptive name ‘perforated baton’ is now generally preferred by most archaeologists investigating their utilitarian function.

Several explanations have been put forward for the use of batons as clubs, boomerangs, daggers or slings but experiments inspired by perforated and sometimes decorated antler tools used by Arctic peoples suggested a more probable use for straightening bone or antler projectile tips and spear shafts. It is important that a spear is straight as slight waves along its length can alter the trajectory of a throw and thus the effectiveness of the weapon. By inserting the point or shaft to be straighten at an angle through the hole and exerting pressure on the inside its curvature, it can be straightened. The value of a tool in making a more efficacious weapon might have been sufficient to cause its elaborate ornamentation perhaps to bring supernatural powers to bear on a task relevant to survival but this is nevertheless a lot of time to invest in such a mundane piece of kit. Recent experiments indicate that batons were actually much more significant in weapon production and hunting as can also be used as a gauge to produce a spear shaft with a regular circumference and aerodynamic taper. After use for making and then straightening both the shaft and tip these simple engineering tools could also be used as spear throwers by adding a loop of rawhide through one of the holes. This loop can be varied in length to suit different sizes of spear. By hooking the loop around the base of the spear or by holding it against a knot around the shaft spears can be launched with considerable force. Such an essential object may have had great value to its owner and this could have resulted in the elaborate decoration.

As an all in one tool and weapon essential for hunting, the perforated antler baton was perhaps the most important part of a man’s equipment, decorated to reflect his identity, status and beliefs. The quality of drawings on such kit is often not as good as on non-functional pieces, suggesting they were sometimes the work of the owner rather than a practised artist

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