01 April 2011

The First Bobblehead! An engineered figure stone “laughs” with kinetic energy for 25 seconds after being touched

The First Bobblehead.  An engineered prehistoric figure stone “laughs” kinetically for 25 seconds after being touched.  Dennis Boggs collection, Irrigon, Oregon, U.S.A. Analysis and interpretation by Ken Johnston.

This rock is designed to be a moving, laughing, stone figure.  It is a cartoonish depiction of a head and mouth, somewhat like a PAC-MAN figure.  The stone has a carved ledge which serves as the “lower lip” on the laughing face.  This lip wraps around part of the stone at an angle which seems to depict a smirk or grin.  There is a tongue depicted in bas relief on the palate and a tongue depicted in sunken relief on the bottom of the mouth, giving it a life-like appearance of looking into the mouth of a laughing person with “their tongue on the roof of their mouth.” There appears to be residue of a reddish pigment in the tongue/open mouth area.
The Wikipedia description of a modern-day bobblehead is somewhat apropos.  “A bobblehead doll, also known as a bobbing head doll, nodder, or wobbler, is a type of collectible toy. Its head is often oversized compared to its body. Instead of a solid connection, its head is connected to the body by a spring in such a way that a light tap will cause the head to bobble, hence the name.”

The bottom of the rock has two curved rails it is able to toddle on.  These rails have been worked to maximize the kinetic activity of the stone after being touched.  These are “rockers,” like on a play-horse.  The stone was made to balance precariously on the rails and to rock smoothly after being touched so as to continue in motion for 25 seconds, an extraordinarily long time for --a stone-- to move, in place, without having been engineered to do so.  It was probably a “joke” stone or a “novelty” stone at least, and may have served a more serious role as a puppet-like presence of the enduring mythological role of the character “the trickster.”

The bobblehead has been designed to be "inertia seeking" over a longer than anticipated time- thus becoming an object of magic.  In a possibly animistic view of the world, this particular rock would certainly be seen as "spirited with life."

There is an aesthetic similarity of the smile or smirk on the bobblehead to the one seen in the posting of the “The Trickster” in February.  While both were found near Irrigon, Oregon along the Columbia River, and may indicate a shared perception or artistic sense of the grin/smirk, these pieces were “field finds,” out of their original context, and whether they shared relative time and space while in use is not known.
(click on any photo to enlarge)

This is a view of the rocker rails on the bottom of the figure stone which have been engineered and worked to enable it to balance precariously and continue wobbling for 25 seconds after being touched.

Watch this 30 second video of the figure stone in action!


One of the visitors to the video has posed an excellent question:

Question: Very interesting the specialised shape of this artefact object. Indeed it moves for 25 seconds when touched. My question is if they had stable, flat surfaces to put the rock on. I think maybe you try the same at a slate palette, or a similar natural surface to see the moving of the artefact? It 's not that I'm not convinced of the principle- stone age people are very much the same as we are!- but how does this work on a natural surface?
Answer:  This question is likely based on the observation that the rock in the 25 second video has the benefit of having been filmed on the fine porcelain finish of the top of my toilet tank.  The answer is that the rock does display the kinetic property, but for shorter periods of time, on rougher surfaces. 
Rather than touched and left alone, I think there was perhaps a desire,  like with modern day bobblehead-touchers, to keep the head moving (e.g. placement on the automobile dash.)
I hypothesize the stone was more likely continuously manipulated on a somewhat flat surface (not a perfectly flat surface) in a lever type action which could keep the figure laughing indefinitely.  There is a “front stopper” which allows the stone to “laugh on the rocker rails” and learch forward, if moved too much, onto another surface, which will “bounce” it back onto the rails, without toppling forward.  This allows one to “ensure” the stone keeps moving without rolling over.
In this video demonstration, I use a slab acquired from a prehistoric cultural site which presents a nice “handle” from which I manipulate the slab in "push-button" fashion while a small pebble rests underneath to provide a fulcrum mechanism. I manipulate the bobblehead stone and show that it can be maintained for near a minute (an hour, a week with a team), and then at the end I let loose and let the rock bobble on the completely natural surface where the kinetic movement may still be seen in action.  This natural surface is not particularly smooth, although it is relatively flat.  It, or another stone, could be smoothed to a polish close to the porcelain one if desired, where the 25 second kinetic movement could be approximated or exceeded.

This is the slab stone, and flat pebble in lower left, used to create a "natural" lever mechanism to allow one to keep keep the head moving as long as attentive to it.

The lighting scheme in the stone surface video is 100% wholly reflected, and pure (from clear glass bulb), incandescent lighting.  This lighting seems best to bring out visual attributes which may be noticed if the rock art is viewed fireside.  The video with bobblehead on the stone slab shows a lightened "rim" along the lip of the figure so a mouth is visible in low level light.  There appears to be two light stone eyes staring out from the darkness on the front of the stone above the mouth.  This is visible in the still shot on the YouTube PLAY> screen, and also during the video itself.

Thank you for the question. 



i have several 'bobblehead' creatures...seals,and birds...i have placed them in flowing rivers/streams...or at the edge of the ocean and noted they 'wabble' with the flow of the water...they look rather alive when seen moving around seemingly on their own.


  1. Ken,
    Great to see the site is up and running, it will be a huge addition to a subject that is scarce on information and is literally in it infantcy. Congratulation. Hope in time I can make a contribution to the endevor.

  2. ken...
    i have several 'bobblehead' creatures...seals,and birds...i have placed them in flowing rivers/streams...or at the edge of the ocean and noted they 'wabble' with the flow of the water...they look rather alive when seen moving around seemingly on their own.