Clues to Early Maryland, #20 – Thunderstones and Elf Arrows

When the European settlers arrived on the shores of Maryland, they entered an unfamiliar land both in terms of the native peoples and the environment. They also carried with then an ancient culture and beliefs about the nature of the world. It takes great effort to try to understand their worldview because ours is so different. Nevertheless, it is essential for a scholar to work at comprehending at least some of their ideas before making interpretations. I would like to illustrate this by examining one group of artifacts, stone tools. In the 1969 excavations at the 18th-century John Hicks site at St. Mary’s City, the archaeologists recovered a variety of ancient materials spanning several thousand years of time, as seen below. And yet the location does not appear to have been a major settlement area for Maryland Indians. We can only explain their presence as due to their being collected by someone and brought to the site This is surely the earliest evidence for artifact collecting in the state. A few 17th-century artifacts were also carried to the site, most probably from nearby St. John’s.

Stories - Thunderstones and Elf Arrows

We immediately recognize these as artifacts made by prehistoric peoples. They include spear points, a celt, a white quartz scraper and at the bottom right is a part of a banner stone used with a spear throwing device called an atlatl. It may be more than 2000 years old. But did the early 18th-centry collector see them the same way?

Probably not because the recognition of these as human-made objects is actually a relatively recent phenomenon. For centuries around the world, except Australia, these were thought to be the product of supernatural forces that came from the sky. This was prior to there being any sense of human cultural development or the idea of evolution, which has profoundly shaped thought since the late 18th century. For 17th-century colonists, the world was of relatively recent origin and ancient objects did not fit into such a perspective. The Bible suggested only a six to seven thousand year old world. People were aware of the accomplishments of ancient Rome and the dramatic decline which followed its fall. While the medieval era had seen impressive achievements, there was no sense of cultural evolution. For unusual objects a celestial origin was as good an explanation for them as any other. Here is a late 1400s engraving showing a thunderstone coming from the clouds to the ground near a French town. We would identify this “thunderstone” as a Neolithic stone axe.

Stories - Thunderstones and Elf ArrowsTown of Ensisheim, France struck by a Thunderstone in the late 15th century. Stone in the sky is indicated in red

The magical or sacred attribution of these objects believed to come from the sky are found in cultures around the world and every inhabited continent including Europe, Africa, India, and China and the Americas. Only Australia is excluded. In Europe, this may have derived from beliefs about the God of Thunder – Zeus or Thor, and the idea they represent the weapons used by the gods, hence their appearance in the forms of axes, celts, and spear points. Medieval belief held that these were remnants of the continual battle between God and the Devil, or his chasing after evil spirits in the heavens. A related popular believe in Western Europe was that spear points or arrow heads of stone were shot by elves or fairies down at cattle and humans to do them harm. Names included Elf Arrows, Elf Bolts, Thunder Bolts, or Pixie Arrows. And remember, no one had the knowledge that thunder and lightening were caused by electrical discharges, because electricity was unknown.

However, by the late Renaissance there were new questions arising about the origins of these objects. Collectors of curiosities began considered the possibility that some might be human made. Among elite circles on the Continent and in England in the 16th and 17th centuries, this gradually became accepted. Exploration and the encounter with people in different lands also brought to light cases where similar objects were in use. Nevertheless, this had little if any influence upon popular beliefs among the people. That there was still much uncertainty is well reflected by the statement of the grand Danish collector Ole Worm, who founded what would become archaeology, museology, and folklore in Scandinavia. He had dug up stone axes and catalogued them thusly in 1655:

“Cerauniae [thunderstones], so called because they are thought to fall to earth in the lightning flash…Their origin is disputed; some deny that they are meteorites, supposing from their resemblance to iron tools that they are really such tools transformed into stones. On the other hand, reliable witnesses state that they have observed these stones on the precise spot – in a house or a tree, and so on – where lightning had struck.”

While a very educated man, it does seem that he believed they were of a celestial origin. In the 17th century, some scholars produced inventive physical explanations for how thunderstones and arrows might have been made in their astral home. An example is German scholar Adrianus Tollius who, in 1649, describes the development of ‘thunderbolts’:

“they are generated in the sky by a fulgureous exhalation (whatever that may look like) conglobed in a cloud by a circumfixed humour, and baked hard, as it were, by intense heat. The weapon, it seems, then becomes pointed by the damp mixed with it flying from the dry part, and leaving the other end denser; while the exhalations press it so hard that it breaks out through the cloud, and makes thunder and lightning.”

I have no idea what he is trying to say but maybe you can figure it out. In 1699, the Royal Society of London published in its Philosophical Transactions an article that still attributed these projectile points to elves and fairies. This belief persisted among the public and in his travels through Scotland in 1773, Samuel Johnson found that “The people call them Elf-bolts and believe that the fairies shoot them at the cattle.”

But in the later 18th century, the educated elite began accepting that these were of human manufacture as science developed, new insights about the age of the earth were arising and there was growing recognition that the human presence on earth greatly exceeded the time line found in the Bible. Still, the folk belief in thunderstones and elf arrows persisted among most people, especially in rural areas. Work by folklorist throughout Europe have shown that this continued throughout the 19th century and even into the 20th century in some areas. An early 19th-century account from Estonia reads “When lightning strikes into a tree and splits the tree, it must be a stone which can split a tree. This stone goes into the ground and comes up again after some time.”

Finding a thunderstone or arrow was believed to bring good luck to the person. It was apparently a widespread practice to keep an elf arrow on your person as protection against lightning striking you. They were also useful against witches. And there were even medical benefits. Rubbing a boil with a thunderstone would bring relief and thunder arrows could cure a toothache or other maladies. Such folk beliefs, with variations, have been identified in many cultures around the world. But one of the most important uses of a thunderstone was to protect buildings from being struck by lightning. This was a very widespread belief and here is a drawing of a stone axe found attached to the rafter of a medieval Swedish house for this very purpose.

Stories - Thunderstones and Elf ArrowsA Medieval House in Sweden with a Thunderstone attach to its rafter.

Given all this, it seems unlikely that the person or persons living at the John Hicks’s site who collected stone axes, celts or spear points would have identified them as the tools of prehistoric peoples. They did not have that cultural knowledge or understanding. More likely, they saw them as objects of a heavenly origin that may have possessed protective or magical properties. Unquestionably they viewed these artifacts differently than we do. While we cannot prove their beliefs conclusively, taking into account their worldview makes these artifacts more likely to have been veiwed as magical or protective objects rather than simply being the random finds of a curious “arrowhead collector.”

But there is another find archaeologists have made at St. Mary’s City that might better fit the idea of thunderstones. In our excavations at the Van Sweringen site, we uncovered a small building now believed to have been Van Sweringen’s Coffee house dating from the last decades of the 17th century (See Clues to Early Maryland 14 for more about this building). It had a two-part chimney footing, in front of which was a large storage pit filled with destruction debris from the building and chimney. The unexcavated pit is seen here.

Stories - Thunderstones and Elf Arrows

Amongst the brick, mortar and plaster came a superb grooved prehistoric stone axe which is seen below. There were no other prehistoric materials in the fill, indicating that this was not an accidental inclusion from the surrounding soil, but had been in the building. We believe that this was seen as a thunderstone and following that venerable folk tradition, was intentionally placed in the coffee house as protection against lightening. It may have been in the chimney or fixed to a rafter

Stories - Thunderstones and Elf ArrowsStone Axe from the Van Sweringen Coffee House site.

While we cannot prove beyond any doubt that it was really used as a thunderstone, the context within the destruction rubble, its size and uniqueness in the deposit, and beliefs of the time makes this a reasonable interpretation. If we could have seen it in the standing building, that would have made it definitive. But later, and very unexpectedly, there would come an opportunity to make such an observation on a standing structure.

One of the prize possessions of the museum is the very rare 1840s duplex slave quarter that was on the Brome Plantation. It was a center of African American life between c. 1840 and 1965, being witness to slavery, emancipation, and freedom despite the oppression of Jim Crow laws. We have tried to tell that story by making an exhibit of this unique building, which is available for you to tour. This is what it looked like in the earliest photograph around 1890.

Stories - Thunderstones and Elf ArrowsThe Brome Slave Quarter as it appeared around 1890.

For a number of reasons, the museum made the decision in 1992 to move all the Brome Plantation structures to a new location so that there would be access to the heart of the 17th-century capital. After inspection, it was determined that the buildings could be moved but it could only be achieved if the brick chimneys were first dismantled. After full documentation and archaeological excavations, workers came to take apart the quarter chimney. Most of the brick in it was recycled from nearby 17th-century sites. As this demolition was underway, one of the workers came up to us and said “We just found this” and he handed us a prehistoric stone axe as seen below. Although I did not see the exact place, the discussion indicated that it was affixed just under the roof next to or on the chimney stack.

Stories - Thunderstones and Elf ArrowsA Grooved Stone Axe “Thunderstone” from the Slave Quarter Chimney. It is 3.5 inches wide and 5,5 inches long.

This was a prehistoric axe intentionally placed in an 1840s building, presumably for protection. The quarter was built on a bluff high above the St. Mary’s River, in a very expose location. This suggests that the tradition of the thunderstone had continued in St. Mary’s County well into the 19th century. Better physical proof for the use of thunderstones, short of actually talking to the people who installed them, is hard to imagine.

When trying to understand people in the past, it is essential to consider their beliefs and perspectives. Seeing these prehistoric artifacts as purely evidence of Native American life will fail to acknowledge that they may have been given other interpretations and meanings. Sometimes, even the task of recognizing objects that could have had significance in the past can be difficult. I will confess to making a big mistake when working as a young excavator at the St. John’s site in the early 1970s. While screening the soil from a square in the front yard of the 1638 house, a small stone was revealed. It had a sort of round shape with a prominent natural hole through it. It was rather strange but I concluded it was just a rock and threw it into the wheelbarrow. But for some reason, I never forgot it. Years later and with more research, it became obvious that I had made a bad decision. Such stones were prized as “hagstones” or “witch stones” and believed to have magical and protective properties against evil eye and witchcraft. From the Bronze Age into the 20th century, unusual stones with holes in them have been regarded as a protection against evil. They could help cure maladies or serve as a fertility aid when tied to a bedpost, and ward off nightmares. The picture below is not the object I found, but it is as close to it as my memory allows. They were often worn on a string around the neck or hung in barns and chicken houses to protect the livestock. I failed to recognize it but strongly urge all future archaeologists to save strange and weird stones with holes in them, for they may be evidence for the long forgotten folk magic of a distant age.

Stories - Thunderstones and Elf ArrowsA Hagstone similar to the one I found and discarded at the St. John’s site.

It is an immense challenge to honestly interpret people who have lived before us because so much has changed. Using our perspective and values to judge them is called “Presentism” and unfairly ignores the distinct cultures, ideas, beliefs, and perspectives that shaped their lives and actions. Thunderstones, Elf Arrows and Hagstones are excellent examples of how people at different times can interpret the very same objects in highly contrasting ways. An essential step for both the archaeologist and the historian is to try and comprehend how they saw the world, even if we can never more than partially achieve that. And one final note. Despite being in an exceptionally exposed location overlooking the river, the Brome Slave Quarter was never struck by lightning. Its builders would readily claim that the thunderstone worked.

About the Author

Dr. Miller is a Historical Archaeologist who received a B. A. degree in Anthropology from the University of Arkansas. He subsequently received an M.A. and Ph.D. in Anthropology from Michigan State University with a specialization in historic sites archaeology. Dr. Miller began his time with HSMC in 1972 when he was hired as an archaeological excavator. Miller has spent much of his career exploring 17th-century sites and the conversion of those into public exhibits, both in galleries and as full reconstructions. In January 2020, Dr. Miller was awarded the J.C. Harrington Medal in Historical Archaeology in recognition of a lifetime of contributions to the field.