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Bâtons Percés

Les bâtons percés : décors énigmatiques et fonction possible

Rigaud (2001)
Translation: Don Hitchcock


Identified as early as 1866, the pierced baton has produced no less than 37 hypotheses regarding its use. Among the most often expressed uses was that of a spear straightener, in combination with heat from a fire. On some of the artefacts traces of use, sometimes two by two, evoke the twisting of a cord through the hole.

After observing scroll like decorations, the author at first fabricates varied pierced batons and then experimentally takes on the 'use with cord' hypothesis. Proved efficient, this last experiment is a possible explanation of some ornaments but the traces of use obtained are different from the archaeological tools. 75 % of the pierced batons that are left to us are broken. The small fragments found with them confirm the domestic use of the artefact, but the shape of some of the breaks forces us to look for another way of breaking.

Experimentation opens the way to the use as a cord securement attached to weights which reproduces under heavy loads or strong impacts, all the observed archaeological breaks and it may give another tentative explanation of the so-called phallic ornaments.

baton perce

Engraved bâton percé.

Bâton gravé
Feuilles Le Bel et Maury
Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, musée national de Préhistoire
MNP 1992-13-79

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2014
Source: Musée d’art et d’archéologie du Périgord, Périgueux

If there is one object that has spilled more ink than anything else in archaeology, it is the enigmatic pierced baton, first described in 1866, under the name of 'bâton de commandement'.

Sometimes sumptuously adorned with animal or human figures, sometimes covered with signs apparently present throughout the Upper Palaeolithic, it is indecipherable, and sometimes devoid of decoration, it is rare in the Solutrean, reaches its apogee in the Magdalenian, and seems to disappear in the Badegoulian.

By turns interpreted as a hunting trophy, bisexual instrument, tent peg, and more recently a boomerang or a fire drill, Glory (1959) offers five classification categories:

1. theories based on psychological probabilities;
2. theories based on similar objects used worldwide;
3. theories based on wear or decorative patterns;
4. theories based on experimentation drawn from ethnological facts;
5. theories based on experimentation and from ethnology, but with the inclusion of traces of wear.

Peltier (1992) used just three classifications:

• non-utilitarian objects;
• utilitarian objects: tool, utensil;
• utilitarian objects: weapon.

The thirty-seven hypotheses of use issued to date alone testify to our ignorance about a piece of technology which at first sight has a simple design, and encourages researchers to retain only those: a) that draw their origin in ethnology; b) whose experimental reconstitution results in a feasibility, efficiency and causes some traces of use identical to that observed on prehistoric pieces. In recent publications, only two hypotheses are often used: spear straightener and sling handle for throwing spears.

The Spear Straightener hypothesis:

The hypothesis was discussed many times since the late nineteenth century, but Leroi-Gourhan (1943) seems to have been the first to use an experimental reconstruction of a bâton percé to straighten bone spears (but not of reindeer antler, oral communication dating from 1976).

Dating from that time, in publications on prehistoric themes, the explanation of bâtons percés as straightening tools on 'hot' spears was accepted without objective criticism and without understanding the phenomenon.

Therefore, in prehistoric publications, straightening says 'hot' spears flourished without genuine concern for objective criticism and sometimes without understanding the phenomenon.

It now appears likely that we we were, like others perhaps, the victims of a number of facts or statements of fact such as:

• the scientific aura of the 'expert' (Leroi-Gourhan);
• misinterpretation of the term 'hot';
• a lack of original documents, whether in key publications such as those concerning Inuit spear straighteners or genuine archaeological pieces;
• the sheer number of images or drawings accompanying the older publications;
• a shortage of the essential raw material, i.e. reindeer antlers.

Leroi-Gourhan, like other leading scientists, had so much left his indelible mark on the world of prehistory and prehistorians that he had become for many of us, the inescapable 'reference', and his assumptions were sometimes considered as incontestable truths.

Thus in 1986, after writing our article on decoration and function, J. Allain did not immediately support our premise for fear of upsetting the ideas of his master. Yet he had foreseen the interest of such an approach by writing:

'Careful examination of such a rich and diverse selection of bone pieces is able to provide useful additional information on the equipment of the Magdalenian hunters' (Allain, Rigaud, 1986).

La Madeleine tools and artefacts

Bâton percé engraved with a line of three horses.

13 000 BP, reindeer antler, 31 cm long.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2014
Source: Facsimile, Musée d'Archeologie Nationale et Domaine, St-Germain-en-Laye

Hot straightening was part of our peasant childhood and we often used it to make straight bamboo shoots used as fishing poles. It was heated, by rotating between the fingers over a flame. The part of the stem closest to the nodes momentarily gained some flexibility.

After bending between thumb and forefinger of both hands, on the knee or on the edge of a table for poles of larger diameter, we only had to wait for the bamboo rod to cool to retain the form we had imposed, and for the natural flexibility to return.

Never, however, did we have need of a straightener. We never worked with fallen antler or antler taken from a dead animal, but Peltier (1992) used this straightening technique by heating spear tips on the edge of an experimental fireplace.

Most spear heads, sagaies, from La Garenne (Saint-Marcel, Indre) are made from rods taken from large dropped male reindeer antlers, and more rarely on fresh antler from hunted animals. Was the freshness of dropped antlers a criterion for choice? We will likely never know.

Averbouh et al. (1999) think 'that in the vast majority of cases, the Magdalenian - if not others - fresh antler was carved 1-2 months after its fall without special treatment'. Our experiments lead us to see that it is possible to carve reindeer antlers several years after its fall, whether kept moist or not.

Often we moisten, usually with saliva, one of two grooves while we carve the other, in order to soften a few tenths of a millimetre of material. It is also possible to dip the tip of the burin in water every three or four passes.

The latter method has the advantage on the one hand of avoiding dulling of the cutting edge, and on the other softens the work surface without soaking, which solves the problem of obtaining a container for large pieces of antler.

The marks of carving are then perfectly comparable to those observed in the gisements. This is, in our opinion, much more of a chisel sharpening problem that needs to be shaped and sharpened to both cut the groove deeper, and to widen it, without having to change tools to perform both actions.

Even so, reindeer antlers which have totally dehydrated are not able to be worked by heat. The action of heat makes the antler more brittle, which we learned the hard way when straightening a spear in our first attempt, which broke like glass in our fingers.

In order for it to attain a certain flexibility, it is essential to soak the reindeer antlers in water. Peltier (1992) uses hot water, but this is not mandatory and cold water is ideal, it is only a matter of time soaking.

After correction of the curvature, heat is only needed to accelerate the elimination of excess moisture. This drying can be achieved in two or three minutes over a high heat, or after several hours or even a day at room temperature. A straightened spear point (sagaie), abandoned outdoors while being protected from the rain, resumed its original curvature after a month and a half. Among modern techniques hair styling offers similarities with straightening spear points.

The curling iron, whose technique seems to go back to the Assyrian civilisation, was adopted by all ancient civilisations and lasted until the 1800s. Preheated on a fire, the curling iron was used on dry hair (or whiskers) for sharply curved patterns. Now we practice styling, or, conversely, straightening. Hair, previously wet, is either wound on curlers or stretched and dried. The hair dryer only accelerates the drying process and drying at room temperature is quite possible. As with spear heads, hair that is blowdried more quickly resumes its natural form when air humidity is high.

Economy of reindeer antler

After twenty-five years, re-reading what has been written on the subject, perhaps we too have the impression that shaping a spear necessarily involved the phase of straightening. Recent contradictory observations allow us to doubt this.

Despite the substantial deliveries from J.-F. The Mouël, our supplier, we have always used reindeer antler from l'île de Banks sparingly. This relative shortage of raw material made us cut spears where no Magdalenian would cut into an antler, and sometimes in very curved parts that necessarily require straightening.

Conversely, whether at the shelter l'abri Fritsch, Pouligny-Saint-Pierre (Indre), in badegouliennes layers, or at La Garenne in making the Magdalenian shuttle, the concept of economy of reindeer antler material did not really appear. At l'abri Fritsch , Badegouliens did not hesitate to destroy a huge male reindeer antler, retaining only cortical strip 3 cm wide at most. At La Garenne, the Magdalenians sometimes were content to remove material for a baguette or two before throwing away a still perfectly usable antler.

Sometimes, however, the antler is used so exhaustively that we can see traces which indicate that one piece was removed right beside another. This is probably not because of a saving of material, it is more likely that the second piece was taken from right beside the first because since only one extra groove need be made, it is a 50% saving of time!

The spear points (sagaies) of La Garenne

It is possible to classify these into four categories according to their length:

• Small points, biconical or beveled, measuring up to 120 mm long with a diameter of about 5 mm to 6 mm (Allain et Rigaud 1992).
• small spear points of 120 mm to 200 mm long with a diameter of about 8 mm to 10 mm, quite different from the large points, very curved, the maximum diameter thereof not exceeding 6 mm.
• average spears more than 200 mm long.
• large spears of which no examples have survived whole, of circular cross section, created not from baguettes but from the whole antler.

The first three categories are from baguettes of reindeer antler removed by double grooving, square or rectangular, their flanks shaped by burin. Their cross section may be circular in cross section but the presence of spongiosa always indicates the nature of the base material. Rarely single bevel, their base is usually double or conical bevelled. In the present state of our observations, the method of fitting of large spear points is only double bevel.

reindeer subspecies antlers

Antlers of Rangifer tarandus arcticus and Rangifer tarandus tarandus

A, arcticus, B, tarandus.

As noted by Bouchud (1954) the reindeer of l'abri Fritsch or La Garenne seem to be similar to Rangifer tarandus arcticus because their antlers possess a regular concave curvature from the 'ice antler' to the start of the 'palm patch'.

Photo: drawing by Bouchud (1954)
Additional text and arrows on the drawing: Don Hitchcock
Source and text: Rigaud (2001)

Figure 6

1. Diagram by Glory defining the zones of wear at the edges of the hole.
2. Distribution of the wear noticed by Glory on 115 bâtons percés, for each sector above, by taking into account an arbitrary front and back.
3. The same wear patterns after grouping the results.
4. Total of the alternate wear patterns diametrically opposed.

1, cadran Glory définissant des zones d'usure de l'oeil; 2, répartition des usures constatées par A. Glory sur 115 bâtons percés, pour chaque secteur ci-dessus, en tenant compte d'un recto et d'un verso arbitraires ; 3, les mêmes usures en regroupant les résultats ; 4, total des usures alternes diamétralement opposées.

Photo and text: Rigaud (2001)

RECTIFIERS spears From compilation publication, some images become so habitual that they are gradually becoming part of our certainties. First, this representation of a hand holding a straightener arrowshaft (Leroi-Gourhan, 1943), like Eskimos rectifying arrows poles, seems to have given many prehistorians this notion of essential lever in straightening spears (Fig. 4). LES REDRESSEURS DE SAGAIES De publication en compilation, certaines images et photos deviennent tellement habituelles qu'elles font peu à peu partie de nos certitudes. Tout d'abord, cette figuration d'une main tenant un arrowshaft straightener (Leroi-Gourhan, 1943), à la façon des Eskimos rectifiant des hampes de flèches, semble bien avoir imposé à un grand nombre de préhistoriens cette notion de levier indispensable au redressage des sagaies (fig. 4).



  1. Allain J., Rigaud A., 1986: Décor et fonction, quelques exemples tirés du Magdalénien, L'Anthropologie, 90, 4, p. 713-738.
  2. Averbouh A., Begouën R., Clottes J., 1999: Technique et économie du travail du bois de cervidé chez les Magdaléniens d'Enlène (Montesquieu-Avantès, Ariège). Vers l'identification d'un cycle saisonnier de production, Préhistoire d'os. Recueil d'études sur l'industrie osseuse offert à Henriette Camps-Fabrer, Aix-en-Provence, Publication de l'Université de Provence, p. 289-318.
  3. Bouchud J., 1954: Le renne au Paléolithique supérieur, Bulletin de la Société d'études et de recherches préhistoriques des Eyzies, 4, pp. 17-20.
  4. Glory A., 1959: Débris de corde paléolithique à la grotte de Lascaux (Dordogne), Mémoires de la Société préhistorique française, 5, p. 135-169.
  5. Glory A., 1961: La grotte de Rigney (Doubs), Centenaire de la Préhistoire en Périgord (1864-1964), Périgueux, Société historique et archéologique du Périgord, p. 56-62, suppl. au Bulletin de la Société historique et archéologique du Périgord, 91, 1964.
  6. Leroi-Gourhan A., 1943: Evolutions et techniques -1- L'homme et la matière, Paris, Albin Michel, coll. Sciences d'aujourd'hui, 367 pp.
  7. Peltier A., 1992: Bâtons percés, baguettes, Camps-Fabrer H. (éd.), Fiches typologiques de l'industrie osseuse préhistorique, Cahier V-1.0., 1.1., 1.2., 1.3., bâtons percés, baguettes, Commission de nomenclature sur l'industrie de l'os préhistorique, Union internationale des sciences pré- et protohistoriques, Treignes, CEDARC, p. 7-64.
  8. Rigaud A., 2001: Les bâtons percés : décors énigmatiques et fonction possible, Gallia préhistoire, tome 43, 2001. pp. 101-151.

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