Sometime in the early 1950s a wooden object was dredged from the mouth of the Skagit River, north of Seattle. It ended up in the possession of Mr. and Mrs. Edwin Johnson, residents of the nearby town of La Conner. In 1952 the Johnsons showed it to two local archaeologists, Herbert Taylor of Western Washington College of Education (now Western Washington University) in Bellingham and Warren Caldwell of the University of Washington in Seattle. Taylor and Caldwell immediately recognized it as an atlatl, but it was unlike any atlatl they had ever seen. It was about 40 cm long, not an atypical length for a North American atlatl, and its width was also typical, but it had on its upper surface a very elaborate carving, 11 cm high, of what looked like a dragon or lizard. It also had two carved finger holes, similar to some Mesoamerican examples. They subsequently searched the archaeological literature on atlatls but could find no other examples anywhere of this kind of carving on an atlatl. Realizing the uniqueness of this artifact made it an important find, they published a short article on it in American Antiquity in 1954, complete with a rather low-quality photograph. In the article they noted the various possible explanations for the atlatl’s origin, including the possibility that it was a modern fake, which they disregarded because of its uniqueness (if it was a modern imitation, what on earth could it be an imitation of?), and they concluded that its intact condition suggests it was deposited at or near the river’s mouth rather than floating down the river from somewhere inland. This left two possibilities: either it was a local example of a previously unknown type of artifact, or it was an artifact from elsewhere that somehow ended up in the area in antiquity. They also noted that atlatls are not known at all from the Pacific Northwest ethnographically. They didn’t mention the fact that atlatl weights have been found in the Northwest archaeologically, possibly because the main article describing these finds didn’t come until five years later, but since this atlatl doesn’t seem to have any place to attach a weight that wouldn’t be very relevant anyway. They didn’t present any theories about where the atlatl may have come from or what it meant, saying only that if the Johnsons agreed they would try to do some more detailed analyses to try to get clearer answers.
The British Museum‘s catalog entry for the Santa Barbara atlatl (which has similar finger holes) mentions the radiocarbon dating of a “highly decorated atlatl, dredged up from the Skagit River in the 1950s and dated to the Marpole phase of the Northwest Coast archaeological record,” presumably this one, but the reference is to a 1987 article in the Canadian Journal of Archaeology (with a very uninformative abstract) that I have not been able to access, as Rutgers apparently does not subscribe to the paper version of the journal and the electronic version only goes back to 2004. I may try to track down a copy of the journal to see the article, since it would be very interesting to see the actual date. The Marpole phase apparently dates to the late centuries BC and the early centuries AD, although the exact dates given in different sources vary. In any case, it’s a very mysterious item, and unlike the Santa Barbara example there’s no obviously plausible explanation for it. It could just be that atlatls like this were common in the Northwest at this time but since they were made entirely of wood none of the others have survived in the very wet climate (probably the most likely explanation). The idea that it was an import from somewhere else is tempting given its uniqueness, but where could it have come from? Interestingly, the only atlatls I know of with elaborate carving like this on the top are some ethnographic examples from New Guinea in the Smithsonian, but that’s got to be a coincidence. Anyway, this is just one more of the many odd little stories in the history of atlatl research.
Taylor, H., & Caldwell, W. (1954). Carved Atlatl from Northwest Coast American Antiquity, 19 (3) DOI: 10.2307/277136