The million dollar question: what is a machacador?

December 16, 2009

During our 2009 survey season, a student approached us asking if it was ok to collect a strange object lying on a mound by his feet. Immediately, Natalia got closer to him and identified the artifact as a “machacador”, reported by Bertha Cuevas in her thesis on El Carrizal. Instantly, the artifact was collected, labeled ant stored in the Laboratory.

Throughout the analysis, we noticed that the only modification of the original form is a flake scar, located in the front end (assuming that the back end is the side that presents a round shape). Apart from that, we observed that the artifact was manufactured in travertine. In addition, it presents a conical perforation on one site, while the other shows the same perforation connected to the proximal end.

We decided to visit the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa in order to find some clues about the purpose and use of this rare object. Luckily, we located a complete display cabinet full of artifacts that morphologically look alike the one we collected. Surprisingly, Museum’s classification labels them as war hammers.

We’ve been asking scholars for their opinion about the artifact. Some of them think it had a deadly function, others reckon it was used for leather treatment or seed processing. Finally, some believe it was a tool to work on wood. However, no one is really sure about its function.

This update is aimed to invite you all to leave us some feedback on this intriguing question, so please feel free to send your opinions, experiences and ideas about the function or use that the machacador artifact might have had. So, the million-dollar question is: What do you think it is?

P1030223 P1030226

Pictures of the machacador recovered at PAC’s 2009 survey.

Comments (119)

  1. Hal Slear says:

    Being a relatively soft stone I can’t see where it would have been used for any heavy duty work. It’s shape reminds me of a multi purpose tool for use on a soft material. It could have been used for flattening a surface and also perforating and shaping it. What puzzels me are the conical perforations. They are not identical which raises the question; if it was hafted to a handle what was the method of attachment?

  2. Lisa Flavin says:

    Well, what is the definition of “machacador?”

  3. In my opinion, this object has traces of use, could be used for the fishing ned in the the borders lines.

  4. Saray says:

    Do you have pictures showing the width of the object?

  5. Maria Vazquez says:

    I’m thinking left vs right handed handle would account for the difference on the perforations. And with such a relatively soft stone the uses would have to be on soft materials such as leather and yute.

  6. Tim Eisenhoffer says:

    When I was young, my Uncle used to take me fishing…towards sunset we would take the boat upriver to where he had a “trout line” we would bait the hooks and come back around Midnight to collect the fish. A “Trout Line” is a line of heavy twine that is strung accross a river bed, hooks are set at various intervals, and the whole line is weighted down. These machacadors look a lot like the weights we used to weigh down the lines, which also looked like the kind of counter weights used in old windows.

  7. Steve says:

    Could it be a crude device used to throw a rock or a spear, adding additional strength or leverage?

  8. Jane-Calvert Winkler-Kimble says:

    Perhaps a plumb-bob? that guess is as good as any. Was it near buildings constructed of stone? What kind of items were found the closest to this? Any construction tools or materials?

  9. gabrielle wolf-stahl says:

    tool for prepping hides to make leather?…. see excerpt from web…

    …”After the brains have soaked into the hide for 6 to 8 hours, submerge the hide in water overnight. You want it to be completely saturated and pliable. While it is soaking, you can prepare your “graining” tools. There are two types needed. The first is a wooden wedge shaped tool, with or without a handle. The other is simply a sick about two inches in diameter. The end of the stick is carved into a smooth, blunt, rounded point.

    Restake the hide after it has soaked and use the wedge shaped grainer to “ooze” the water out of the hide. Do this until you can’t get any more water out of the skin.

    Now take the blunt stick grainer and work every inch of the hide. The object is to stretch and loosen every inch of the hide while it is drying. If you stop before it is completely dry it will become stiff! When the hide seems dry, unstake it. “…

    excerpted from attached website…

  10. Blake says:

    It looks a lot like some of the old netting needles I have seen in museum collections, for repairing fishing nets.

  11. In Spanish a machacador would be a grinder or a crusher (assuming its correctly identified). Looks too small for grinding corn or maize into flour. Maybe for grinding herbs or spices, or minerals into powder for use in dyes?

  12. Victoria Tate says:

    Its a small funnel to pour liquid, prob. somthing hot to seal /bind like glue type substance. for small intricate work.
    Or paint for artistic endeavors etc..
    A Funnel.

  13. Victoria Tate says:

    Sorry; I forgot: One side is a pour spout.

  14. john wagner says:

    It could be an amulet,or just something aesthetic to the maker!

  15. john wagner says:

    could be a ceremonial axe after 2nd glance

  16. john wagner says:

    merry christmas one and all

  17. tom sorg says:

    while braiding hide or yucca into rope, if you braid on the “funnel side” and the finished rope lies in the groove on the opposite side, you can grasp the tool and rope and pull to tighten the braid

  18. Mike Reichel says:

    It’s the weighted end of Plumbob. Used for leveling..As a carpenter I use one every day.

  19. Linda Thoreson says:

    Without knowing the location and culture where the object was found, my guess is that is is a sewing or weaving tool. Pointed end and a place for (material) to be threaded.

  20. Michael Murphy says:

    Looks like a shaft straightener. The groove might be a relief for the shaft to avoid making sharp bends as the arrrow is heated and aligned for true flight. The dished relief would allow for 360 degree relief on the other side. This would allow a maker to correct torsion in the shaft.

    But many of the textile and netting applications noted above look plausible too. The groove could be a relief for the twine or rope. It might explain the pointed end but a stone implement for repetitive hand work would be tiring.

  21. Michael Murphy says:

    Mike Reicel’s note of a plumbbob might make sense with a quick experiment. The dished side could hide the knotted end of the cord, the grooved side could cradle the cord too.

  22. Jo Croft says:

    What is the date of this object – that would help. The idea of a plumpbob is a good one on the surface, but isn’t it a bit big? The hole and wear patterns would indicate that something was drawn through from the side with the conical hole and then pulled down and forward as it was worked on the opposite side. Tom Sorg’s idea about using it to braid vegetable matter or hide might create that kind of wear.

  23. Eric H. says:

    It appears to me that the hole is on one side, right or left, not middle. That suggests that is be used as a handle of some kind. In addition, both samples have a point on the side of the hole. To me, this suggests that it be inserted into a small hole of some kind, perhaps to hold it still in one position. Not sure what the hole is for, perhaps some sort of guide.

    I know I provide no answers, but I hope my observations give someone some good ideas! ( I think the fishing net idea is a very good one, too)

  24. Jane-Calvert Winkler-Kimble says:

    machacador Spanish to English is “masher”. That may only be what someone who found it named it.

    Although I first offered plum-bob, I am now wondering if it was used as a bottle stopper and the hole was used to secure the stopper to the bottle.

    It would be most helpful to us if we had an idea of what items might have been found around it. What room of a house might it have been in? This is where the field notes and drawings may offer more insight.

    Where can we find those?

  25. Victoria Kinsella says:

    Tie two together and perhaps you have the business ends of a bolo-type weapon?

  26. Zoi says:

    I have to agree with Blake, it looks exactly like the tool old fishermen still use in Greece to fix their nets

  27. Paul Allen says:

    The Priests, used the skin of the sacrificed victims. These tools were used to finish the human skin. Priests wore skins of sacrificial victims until they fell off from rotting.

  28. Rick says:

    Could be an ambiguous stone implement. That’s my guess. I think they jumped the gun with the name, when they weren’t sure the purpose.

  29. B F Cleary says:

    How about a pulley

  30. Ryan says:

    I think it would be useful for lighting fire you insert the bottom stick in the groved portion to hold it in place then in the bowl part you add the tinder around the drill stick. The hole acts as a guide and keeps you in line.

  31. Ryan says:

    I think I like the rope theory the best with the knot fitting in the hollow and the rope running along the groove

  32. Jim says:

    It is difficult to tell from just the pictures, and of course it would be good to know the context of the find, but I would guess it’s a wood working tool for arrow making. The perforation could be used for straightening the shafts after warming them over a fire, while the “pointy end” might be helpful in grooving the shaft for fletching?

  33. James C. Orr says:

    Has anyone tried tying it with a 1 – 2 meter piece of string and twirling it fast in a large circle? Does it make a noise?

  34. Justin says:

    My guess would be that its an implament ment to assist in the building of fires. If the flat end was on the ground with the round one facing upward the small channel on the bottom would allow air flow to reach the the small ember that you could create by inserting a stick of the right size/shape into the hole and following the standard fire making process. The funnel like area might also allow you to put your tender directly on the ember without worrying about smothering it. It might also assist in keeping the tender and ember off possibly wet ground. The angel created by the pointy end could have been used in cutting dry grass for use as a tender. Short answer…..Multitool!

  35. Jack Proctor says:

    The calcite stone was thrown overhead only. The devise was built as a toy and its function was to tag the opponent below the waste only and then to have them throw the devise back again to tag the tagger.

  36. Wendy Reese says:

    it is a potato masher

  37. Anna May says:

    As soon as I saw these items they appeared to be tools used for weaving, with the point used to fit between fibers, pulling the line that was threaded through the hole. Perhaps on something like a loom. Or as someone has said a tool for making or repairing nets.

  38. Tara says:

    Wow, I could do some cool weaving/knitting with that thing. The thread (or threads) would go through the conical perforated side. The thread would then sit in the canal on the opposite side and held with thumb. The rounded butt end is up and the pointed end down towards wrist. The pointed end is a “catch” it is to back track as the hand moved back and forth to keep the other threads out of the way.

    I originally though the pointed end would be up but it really would not be of significant use then because the working fabric is obviously large with large whole considering the size of the needle. Plus why expend all that effort on the point unless you needed it to make your work move along faster and less aggravating. Also the point if to one side which is great for “hooking” threads. The making of nets is possible.

    I did not think it was a tool with attached handle because of the type of perforations. It is a hand held tool or like above poster said a weight. But why would a weight need two different styled perforations?

  39. I have taken an archaeology class and have seen a few artifacts like this before. Could they be used to tie ropes to nets and then used as weights to anchor the nets? They have found quite a few in Clatsop County Oregon where I live from the Clatsop Indians. It is possible that the rocks that they used as anchors for fishing could be just a different variation of these.

  40. Don of Tallahassee says:

    I picture this as a grinding cylinder of a different kind than has been mentioned anywhere I’ve looked. I see it as a vertically rising and falling cylinder inside a slightly larger vertical cylindrical tube with some kind of funnel top for introducing grain, used for grinding grain (or corn). A rope would go through the hole of the machacador and be knotted on one side in the funnel shaped hole of the machacador and come out the the other side and extend upward with the rope lying in the groove and thus not being readily abraded against the sides of the cylindrical tube. Grain would be introduced into the the top of the cylinder (maybe into a funnel shaped top?) above the stone piston and be brought into contact with the piston by gravity whereby the piston would grind grain against the sides of the tube (wood, stone or maybe bamboo?) with an up and down motion.

    A simple but sufficiently large water wheel or wind mill could be made to drive the piston with a peg placed along one edge of the wheel and the other end of the rope (not the end through the hole in the machacador piston cylinder) placed around this peg and run through some type of pulley over the top of the cylindrical tube (or maybe to a slender enough tree branch that could be induced to go down with the pull of a rope attached to the peg and spring back up on its own when the tension relaxes as the peg passes the point of farthest distance form the tree). Or some type of seesaw or a lever operated system might be utilized. I really have nothing in the way of evidence or facts upon which to base these suppositions.

    The weight of the stone would be enough force its return downward and to stop it from sticking (at least most of the time). A person (maybe the person putting grain into the top) could be stationed at the top with a stick or pole to free the piston should it get stuck. Milled grain would drop out the bottom of the tube into a basket or onto a blanket. If the apparatus did not provide a fine enough milling, a second or maybe several successive millings in tighter and tighter mills might be required to provide a finer and finer product.

    Maybe new stones were introduced as old ones wore down, thus accounting for both uneven shapes and/or multiplicity of objects at any given site.

    The pointed end of the piston cylinder (the machacador) might be a refinement found to be of some benefit by the inventers and/or users. Is it possible that there were originally two points of equal length with one being worn down with use? The photographs don’t seem to show this.

    Points covered by this explanation:

    The cylindrical shape is accounted for.

    The hole with the differing shapes on each side and the groove from the hole to the end of the object are accounted for.

    The size and weight of the object is accounted for.

    The blunt end might be accounted for as giving extra crushing blows to the milled grain on the ground on a blanket or in some type of basket or maybe just on an anvil stone (since the blows need not be heavy hard blows but closer to just a setting down of a stone still heavy enough to do some smashing). Or, alternatively, the blunt end may have no significance.

    It might be made out of soft stone because they wore out slowly and/or were easier to form out of soft stone. The funnel shape side of the hole would have been easy enough to drill in hard stone, but the groove side of the hole would have been tricky to make in hard stone. Since hard stone obviously wasn’t required, the weight of the object may have been why soft stone was used as opposed to wood or other material. This leads to a belief that gravity has something to do with its use, possibly as a fishing or other weight, possibly as something else, maybe along the lines of what I have described.

    Questions: Were there grooved wear marks from one end or the machacador toward the other end rather than around the waist of the cylinder (which would show that the item in question might have been used as some type of piston)? Were there any wear marks in the funnel shaped hole in the machacador that would be consistent with a knotted rope end of some type rather than some type of wear marks showing a sawing type action by a rope running though the hole? Are there any rocks or pieces of wood or bamboo with cylindrical tube shaped holes in them anywhere near where the machacadors were found? Were the people using these stones all known to have been utilizing some form of grain or corn meal? Were there any other native foods that might have needed such grinding? Was there any grain, corn, or other seed residue attached to the machacador, even microscopically?

    I have a dearth of facts from which to work.

    I use the term rope to include vines, heavy twine, rawhide, either as rope or strands and, of course, rope along with any other possible alternatives.

    I hope my descriptions were sufficiently detailed and explicit enough to give a good approximate idea of whatever it is I’ve been rambling on and on about. I have no way of here easily drawing a picture of what I envision except throught the use of words. Never having seen or heard of these objects before, I gave my imagination full rein and this is what I came up with.

    The machacador’s funnel shaped hole and the groove seem somewhat self explanatory with the knotted end of a rope on one side protected from abrasion by the funnel and the groove seemed to show where the rope came out the other side and was directed toward the end with the pointed projection and again which helped protect the rope from abrasion from rubbing against something. The obvious orientation of this object in use would be with pointed end up and rope extending from that end upward, if a rope was indeed used through the hole. This led to the imagining of the vertical cylindrical tube (the something from which the rope was being protected) and so on.

    The tolerances for easy movement would not seem to be in accordance with any type of water transferrance like a pump or water lift although possibly with a hide covering around the machacador and a sufficiency of lubricant, something along this line of reasoning might be envisioned.

    All of my speculations are purely fanciful imaginings based on these observations.

    Thank you for your patience.

    It’ll probably turn out that these were used as nutcrackers and the shape was handed down through generations thus making me entirely off base. Maybe it was just a counterweight for keeping food up high enough animals couldn’t reach it.

    I don’t know what it is. But, at least I tried to come up with something more original than a net weight while still giving possible reasons for the observed and peculiar attributes of the object,

  41. Don of Tallahassee says:

    I guess the weight of this object to be around 4 or 5 pounds (or 1.8 – 2.3 kg). Is that right? And about the size of a medium large sledgehammer head?

  42. Don of Tallahassee says:

    Is the machacador made of local stone or was it produced elsewhere and brought to the site? Are the other machacadors mentioned as being in a museum also made of travertine? Of a soft, easily worked stone? Of materials local to the site or sites where they were found? If not made of local materials, were they manufactured in one or more particular locations as opposed to being made anywhere suitable materials were found? Were there centers of production for these objects? If so, where?

    Are there other objects like this being found elsewhere in great or small quantities? Is there some pattern to site locations? What groups of people are thought to have used these objects? During what time periods were they thought to have been used?

    What was the general range of size and weight for other machacadors? Did they all or most have the same general characteristics as this one? Are they all cylindrical with a hole near one end? Do most have the same types of holes and pointed ends and flat ends Are the sizes and weights consistent or do they vary greatly?

    What was the distance to water bodies during the periods of use from the locations where these items were found? What type of water bodies?

    Were they found in only a few locations or are they found pretty much everywhere in the general area? How big is this area? What is general terrain at each location? Were they found near fields suitable for growing corn or grain or other plants and is there evidence of this growing and of what was growing in those fields? Were they found only in settlement areas or also elsewhere?

    Additional questions will be forthcoming as I think of them. I’m sorry I have so many additional 25 cent questions about the item featured in your million dollar question about machacadors. You have presented an interesting puzzlement.

    Thank you.

    Don of Tallahassee

  43. Kilkee says:

    It used for making fire with a bow and wooden stick. Placing the pointed stick in the hole. With light flammable stuff around it. Getting extra oxygen from beneath.

  44. T. Walters says:

    It might have been made for making rope from twine, the hole keeps it a consistant size while making it, during the process the rope runs through indent which helps to keep the twine relatively together , and at the other side its braided, the protrusion just helps to keep the unbraided twine away from your hands, or tangling up with the braided side

  45. Carl says:

    Firstly, I can definitely sense the antiqueness, and as the reading mentioned, the small hole in the middle was used to put seeds in like cottons to get the necessary part of the seed. Or it could been used as objects to kill or attack some others, because the pointy part would have been really sharp when it was first made. So, maybe one puts in a wooden stick in the hole to hold the stone, and throw it at someone, so this is my assumptions…

  46. Elli Wagner says:

    Can you provide lateral views of the object ?

  47. Adam christo says:

    I really enjoy the digs. They are pretty great!

  48. Jimbo says:

    The carvings are deliberate, and their difference clearly indicate that a string or rope was meant to go through the hole, at a 90 degree angle to the object on the one side and exiting on the other side, it went parallel. The second hole is definitely designed to guide the string (or whatever) in a particular direction, indicating it could have been in a corner. I think the fishing net hypothesis would be something that would fit this, perhaps.

  49. Jimbo says:

    On further thought, I think this device was almost certainly associated with sewing. You use the pointed end as a pick, lifting one bit of thread, and pushing your new thread (which passes through your hole) beneath it. Or something like that.

  50. Jimbo says:

    Except because of the scale, that doesn’t make sense. Never mind.