I first heard the word “atlatl” when I was around eight years old. We lived in northern Alberta at that time and had no TV, so my brothers and I all read a lot. I can’t remember what book my brother had been reading but he was suddenly very excited about atlatls and their potential to throw darts (small spears) with speed and accuracy. He wanted to make one but didn’t have the tools or ability to make his own atlatl. I was quite intrigued by his excitement but didn’t really understand at that time what was so great about the atlatl. Little did I know that summer that my career choice was going to bring me back to this topic in later life.
Reproduction of an atlatl that I have in my office
I first threw darts with an atlatl during the summers of 1995 through 1997. I was working for the Tuscany Archaeology Field School at the University of Calgary and we were excavating a deep site on the northwest edge of Calgary. We were working out in a huge field that overlooked the Bow River valley, a great play area for aspiring atlatl throwers. I recall that my first “kill” was my little Ranger truck, sitting off to the side of the spot where we had stationed ourselves to throw our darts. No major damage was done, thank goodness, but I sure got teased for my incredibly bad throw. One of the grad students in the archaeology department had made the atlatl and had also manufactured one of his darts from a graphite rod that he had purchased. In no time, I was throwing that dart one-hundred metres with ease and some of the other young men in the group were throwing the darts three-hundred metres—the darts disappeared out of sight when they threw them.
The atlatl with a dart locked into the tooth as would be required for throwing. There is no ‘handedness’ with this atlatl—right-handed or left-handed throwers can use the same atlatl and dart.
So, here I am at the RSM years later and what do I come upon but a treasure-trove—a box of atlatl weights that have been found in different places in Saskatchewan. I found this pretty darn exciting! You can see that the reproduction atlatl that we have here in my office, has the weight placed in the middle part of the atlatl shaft. It is a piece of polished soapstone in this case. The idea is that it gives the atlatl some weight and better balance for throwing. What we find in the archaeological record are the shaped and polished weights seen in the pictures below. The wooden and sinew parts have long disappeared, rotting and becoming part of the soil by the time these atlatl weights were found in the fields. Some of them must have taken a lot of work to make, like this quartzite piece which is so smoothly polished. The flat side goes against the bottom of the atlatl shaft. This weight has no grooves etched into it for fastening it to the atlatl.
This round-shaped atlatl weight in the next picture has a groove etched into it to help keep it in place on the atlatl shaft. It is an unusual shape that I have not seen before. So round! I wonder about balance with this shape.
I have only seen elongated and tear-drop -shaped weights like these other two examples.