The Skagit River Atlatl

The Skagit River Atlatl. Image © UBC Museum of Anthropology, Photographed by Derek Tan. CC Licenced.

An atlatl, or spear thrower, is a device used to increase the velocity, and hence range or striking power, of a projectile.  These are usually made of wood or other organic material, and hence they seldom survive in the archaeological record.  Some years ago though, one was dragged up in a fishing net from waterlogged conditions in the Skagit River estuary in northern Washington State near Anacortes.  As the UBC Museum of Anthropology describes:

Made of yew, a hard yet flexible wood, the weapon survived 1,700 years buried in alluvium in the Skagit estuary until it was dredged from these silts by a seine fisher’s net in 1939 in the Lower Skagit between Townhead Island and Bald Head Island. It is believed that it hung in a fish shed, perhaps to dry slowly thus preventing some deterioration, until archaeologists became aware of it in the 1950’s.

Rather incongruously, the Southwest Archaeology blog Gambler’s House has had two in-depth posts about this artifact, here and here.  It’s worth reading both as they give excellent background and tons of links.

Side view of Skagit River Atlatl. Image © UBC Museum of Anthropology, Photographed by Derek Tan. CC Licenced.

Coincidentally, Charles Borden’s 1968 article on this atlatl was one that I linked to in the recent post on BC Studies going open access.  Borden focuses on the decorative motifs of this piece and suggests a date of around Locarno Beach times, or ca. 3000 years old.  The artifact has since been found to be Marpole age, dating to about 1,800 years ago.  Again, according to the MOA,

According to Margaret Holm’s 1990 analysis of Northwest Coast archaeological art, the Skagit atlatl exhibits the most elaborate and detailed design of any ancient object yet found in the region. Although the artistry appears at first glance to stand apart, Holm’s analysis of individual design elements shows connections to other carved art works from this time period across the region and affinity with characteristic elements in historic Salish art exemplified by spindle whorls. The most prominent feature of the atlatl is the magnificent and expressive feather-crested lightning snake that surmounts a human head and appears determined to propel itself forward in its task. Lightening snakes are associated with sea mammal hunting in Salish cosmology.

Bottom view of the Skagit River atlatl. Image © UBC Museum of Anthropology, Photographed by Derek Tan. CC Licenced. (Actually, this is the "top" of the artifact" but 'tsokay MOA)

As noted in a previous post here, atlatls were highly effective maritime weapons, especially for use in canoes and kayaks where, as opposed to a bow and arrow, they could be operated with one hand only.  This would indeed make them highly suitable for marine mammal hunting, since they can as readily throw a harpoon as a spear.  As Gambler’s House points out, there is also an informed discussion happening on the atlatl thrower discussion boards here, although Borden, “Father of BC Archaeology”, is characterized by one poster as a “pinhead”.  The text accompanying the MOA pictures is also informative, and one day soon I’ll make a post about their slick new website.  And, for completeness, see Grant Keddie’s paper on atlatls and atlatl weights in the Northwest, downloadable here – it gives a good account of atlatl use as well as images of the characteristics stones which may have been used to balance the tool.

Ca. 2500 year old atlatl hook. Source: Borden, 1968.

4 responses to “The Skagit River Atlatl

  1. For those in Vancouver who want to find out more about the UBC Museum of Anthropology reciprocal research web project, there is a three person panel presentation on the project up at SFU at 3:30pm today (Room SWH 9152)

    The Reciprocal Research Network: Connecting Community, Researchers, and Collections
    Panelists: Sue Rowley; David Schaepe; Kate Hennessy


  2. The atlatl hook shown here is described by Charles Borden as a person wearing a labret or lip plug. I have examined this artifact carefully and have concluded that there is no labret. What is referred to as a labret is actually the mouth. The grooved out area below the nose is to emphasize the nose – it is not a mouth.


  3. The Skagit River atlatl is currently on view at the Museum of Anthropology in the Multiversity Galleries: Ways of Knowing in Case 7.


  4. Pingback: When Orcas Island Had A Sea Serpent | Northwest Research

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