Tsegi Canyon Cave 2 or 3, Arizona

The Tsegi Canyon Cave 2 or 3 Atlatl
Another “Truncated Handle” form Basketmaker II Atlatl

Justin Garnett, Missouri Atlatl Association

In July of 2010 I had the pleasure and privilege of examining a great many Basketmaker II artifacts in the collection of the Harvard Peabody Museum in Cambridge Massachusetts.  One of the more exciting artifacts examined was a fragmentary atlatl of the form which I will define as “Truncated handled” (Having a lower handle which is too short to be gripped during the throw). The exact provenience of the atlatl has been lost, however it has been attributed to either Cave 2, Arizona, or Cave 3 Arizona (Both in the vicinity of Tsegi Canyon).  Thus I will refer to it as the “Tsegi Canyon Atlatl” (Peabody number 20-5-10/A5110) .  It should be noted that other atlatl have been recovered from cave sites in Tsegi Canyon, but typical nomenclature schemes name such items for the caves in which they were found-as the exact cave is unknown, it seems appropriate to refer to this specimen by the canyon name. This specimen is broken into many pieces, which can be reassembled, although two fragments cannot be set in place, suggesting that additional pieces may be  missing, or that various pieces shrank differentially.  The latter conclusion is likely correct. Thus the length of the instrument cannot be conclusively determined, although it appears to have been appx. 53.5cm in length.  The atlatl is a thin (Appx. ~0.9cm thick) slat of unidentified hardwood which appears to have been at one time coated with a thin layer of resin.  Overall width is approximately 2.5cm at the widest point. The spur is slightly elevated above the surrounding face of the wood, is rather pointed, and is set at the end of a short, deeply cut heart shaped groove.  The spur exhibits wear consistent with a long period of use. No seating for a weight is evident, so  although a weight was  found with the atlatl fragments, it is not clear where or how it was attached. This weight is wedge shaped, made of light grey stone, and bears stains which indicate where lashings passed around it’s midpoint.  The stone is approximately 5cm long.  Due to the limited amount of time I had to review the collection I thought it best to prioritize my time with the measurement of organic artifacts, so regrettably I have no more specific information on the weight.


The handle of this atlatl is quite short, extending for 3.5 cm below the finger notches.  The end of the handle is very rough, and quite degraded, but one corner still appears to be undamaged.  The handle flares outward below the finger grooves and then tapers inward toward the proximal end, forming a somewhat paddle-like truncated triangle.  The author feels it a safe conclusion that the handle of this artifact is only slightly damaged, and presents the general form which it originally held.


The Tsegi Canyon atlatl  bears finger notches wide enough (2.5cm from proximal flare to distal flare) that they could have supported “floating” loops of multi-ply hide like the well-known Broken Roof Cave atlatl (Peabody number 22-13-10/A5598), but such speculation is at present just speculation. What is clear is that however the loops were attached and whatever form they took, the user’s fingers could not have gripped the handle in the throw.  One way to throw with this type of “Vestigial” handle is discussed in Pettigrew and Garnett 2011, and is in fact the author’s preferred throwing style. This method of use puts the Tsegi Canyon atlatl in the same functional category as the Broken Roof Cave atlatl, the Spring Creek Cave atlatl and the McClure atlatl(s).  There are several other compelling similarities between the Tsegi Canyon and Broken Roof Cave atlatl, aside from the fact that both are attributable to the Basketmaker II culture. Both bear a rather substantial weight on the shaft, and share an overall length of ~53.5cm.  The “Working Lever” length-that is, the length of the atlatl shaft distal of the proximal ends of the finger loops to the proximal end of the spur, is also very similar between the two specimens, ~46.87cm for Tsegi Canyon vs. 44.2cm for Broken Roof Cave, making the two functionally very similar.


The Tsegi Canyon atlatl is a very interesting specimen, remarkable for its similarities to the best known Truncated handle form Basketmaker II atlatl, the Broken Roof Cave Atatl.  Truncated handle (Or handless) forms of atlatl are not known ethnographically, but are becoming more evident through reanalysis of collections, and their practicality has been determined through experimentation.  It appears that these initially bizarre looking spear throwers may not be as “unusual” as we may think, and further digging, be it in caves or collections, will likely turn up more examples in the future.


I would like to thank Susan Haskell and the staff of the Harvard Peabody Museum for their patience and assistance, as well as Jeremy Garnett for his assistance with data collection.

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