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Getting to the Point

Another mark of autumn, for me personally, is the plowing of fields and lowering of pond and reservoir water levels. And that means, again for me personally, looking for arrowheads – point hunting we call it. Fall is the ideal time to go out and find Native American artifacts. But there seems to be an increasing stigma associated with this activity for some reason; people seem to think there is something improper about it – at least some people anyway. Which is odd in that people have been finding and collecting artifacts for as long as we’ve walked this earth. I personally know of plowed fields that have been actively hunted for artifacts every year for over 150 years. And there are still artifacts turned up with every plowing. And thanks to people collecting them, we have a much greater insight into who camped there, when, and for how long.

Arrowheads, colloquially, are any of a number of hand crafted stone artifacts used by indigenous people. Some are truly arrowheads, meant to be hafted to an arrow; others are actually knives, scrapers, dart tips, spear tips, drills, and an assortment of other similar tools. The US has a documented habitation of approx. 12,000 years, beginning with the Paleolithic era which was 10,000 BC to approx. 8,000 BC. This era was comprised of nomads who followed the retreating glacial ice pack. They are thought to have entered this country across the land bridge from Siberia. As the flooding from the melting ice rose sea levels, that land bridge was ultimately covered with water, closing it off permanently.

The next culture is called the Early Archaic; they were primarily nomadic but likely settled for longer periods in some favorable locations. Their culture is from 8,000 BC to 6,000 BC. Locally here in Rhode Island, Narragansett Bay was still a river valet with the ocean not yet having risen enough to flood it. Early Archaic sites are more typically found inland than coastal, although they do appear near the coast sometimes.

The next is the Middle Archaic (6,000 BC to 4,000 BC) who, while still heavily nomadic, began to establish more permanent settlements. Their populations were larger than the Early Archaic, and a sense of society began to creep into them. They often returned to the same sites seasonally and as the botany of the area changed with the warming temperatures after the ice pack’s recession, their diet became varied, resulting in the appearance of new tools.

By the Late Archaic (4,000 BC to 1,000 BC), life was rapidly changing for these people. They were exploiting all the resources of the land, mining steatite to make stone bowls and cups, making ornate pendants and other ground and polished stone artifacts. They were still hunter-gathers, but had an ever increasing varied diet. Towards the end of their culture, they also witnessed the first real migration and assimilation of people persecuted for their religious beliefs. The Adena culture fled the Ohio valley to find a new home where they could follow their beliefs, moving east into New England. They brought a myriad of new technology and cultural systems with them such as pipes for smoking, the art of crop growing and harvesting, and new religious ideas. By now the ocean had flooded the river valley and Narragansett Bay was becoming well established, providing a whole new source of food with the abundant shellfish.

The last occupancy of the area untouched by Europeans was the Woodland period, sometimes called the Ceramic period. (1,000 BC to 300 AD). After this of course, came the explorers, who completely changed the way of life of these people. The Woodland period was revolutionary, bringing permanent settlements of extremely large villages with great populations. They farmed heavily and abandoned stone bowls for pottery crafted from mud and vegetative material as well as seashells. They largely settled by the coast so as to take advantage of the food source of fish and shellfish. It is believed that women took a role of responsibility from the men with providing food as they did much of the growing of crops and harvesting of the seafood. Men continued to hunt, but as villages and populations grew, land crowding began to be an issue, leading to disputes over hunting grounds. And sadly, it was during this era that new artifacts first begin to appear: items such as pronged war clubs, made exclusively for mortally wounding adversarial warriors in battle.

Enough of the history lesson – sorry. My point (pun intended) is that there have been people living on this land for 12,000 years. And while not all the occupancies were contiguous ((there are time gaps in the historical record where there are hundreds of years with seemingly no activity) throughout those 12,000 years the people living here made stone tools – millions of them. Think about it. Even with a life span of let’s say, 35 years, a hunter starting at age 10 would have 25 years of hunting. That is over 9.000 days of hunting. His tools were made of stone; fragile and easily broken due to the thin nature of the crafted blade and/or the material. Quartz, for example, was heavily used here in Rhode Island, especially during the Late Archaic and Woodland periods. Quartz is strong but brittle due to its crystalline structure. Argillite is another common material for those periods, a sedimentary rock made from compacted clay that while strong in one axis, can fracture easily on the other. And all of these tools were made to be used: thrown as a dart or spear, or fired as an arrow. They almost always broke on impact, whether in the prey or on the ground with a miss. My personal collecting ratio of well over a hundred broken artifacts to a single complete one is testimony to that.

So consider then, 12.000 years of occupancy filled with daily use of fragile tools constantly breaking through their use. How many artifacts were made? When you get to undisturbed areas along the Rhode Island coast (and by that I mean within a half mile or so of the shore), were you to stick a shovel in the ground you would be hard pressed to not turn up evidence of their occupancy. I am not saying that one would find actual artifacts every time, but you would find shell debris (by the billion) and chips or flakes left by crafting the artifacts. Their population, their occupancy, covered nearly every acre of the region through those 12,000 years. Noodle all that for just a short while and you get an inkling of just how many artifacts were made.

So yes, collectors have harvested thousands of these artifacts; probably hundreds of thousands. But they are preserved and recorded. They are in collections for people to see and study; the community learned a little bit from each artifact. I had a good friend who taught me much about our local prehistory who was an avid collector his whole life. When he died, he donated his entire collection for others to see and to study. The artifacts continue to teach us. But if collectors have gathered hundreds of thousands of artifacts through the last 150 years or so, there have been that amount raised to the Nth power that were destroyed and lost forever due to construction: houses, shopping centers, highways, and the rise of civilization. It actually began when the first settlers arrived here and began to clear land and plow fields.

Rivers were dammed and lakes and reservoirs were formed; the majority of all the large bodies of water around here are manmade – 75% of them. The prehistoric people used rivers as their highways, traveling on them or along them. Every major reservoir or lake in this state reveals artifacts along the shoreline, but only when the spillways are opened to intentionally lower the water level. When that occurs and the water drops back to the original river bed levels, the normally submerged land alongside, now stripped bare of humus and topsoil, artifacts are found mixed in with the sand and gravel. The original sites are completely destroyed by the flooding, but the artifacts can still be found – recovered, rescued.

Please also remember that all this occurred before history. There is no written record of what happened over those 12.000 years. There are no tribe names, no language, and no details on any of them. There is no history of who they were; all that had to be learned by studying their artifacts and their settlements and camps. And thanks to all the years of study, we now have a great understanding of who they were and from where they came. We only learn by collecting and studying.

In my younger years, I was president of our state amateur archeological society for several years. And even then there was derision and disagreement between professional archaeologists and the amateur ranks. I lobbied extensively for a collaboration between the two groups, but could never gain the traction. Perhaps I was too young to be taken seriously or perhaps there was just too much distrust on both sides. But with the construction boom back then, sites were rapidly disappearing and of course, once gone, forever gone. If an imperiled site was identified (which rarely happened, they would usually just bulldoze it all and not say a word out of fear of getting shut down) the professionals would come in and would excavate 10% of the site. Then they would let construction resume and the remaining 90% would be lost forever. I argued that the remaining 90% should be turned over the amateurs to excavate and collect. We’d keep what we found but would readily and openly share the data and examination of the artifacts. In this way the artifacts are preserved and available for study. But as I said, I could never gain the traction to forge an alliance.

There were millions upon billions of artifacts crafted over the last 12,000 years. But most of the intact sites have been destroyed in the last 150 years; why then begrudge someone willing to go out and walk the plowed fields or low water lines of the lakes? Recovery is just as important as preservation, especially when so much is already buried or destroyed. It is a greater problem in other parts of the US than here; I usually don’t hear much negativity around here. But some of the collecting groups I follow that live in the south or Midwest are under attack for collecting artifacts, even those picked up on a river bank. Just doesn’t make sense to me.

So deep into this post and I am just now getting around to say that I have been out on one of our reservoirs twice now. The water level is down, although not as low as I’ve seen it in the past, but low enough to make walking the shoreline worthwhile. This particular reservoir is well inland and my personal collecting has revealed an Early Archaic presence as well as a Late Archaic one. And in one specific area, there is an area that is clearly Woodland – possibly even near the Contact period (which is the brief period of time when both Native Americans and the European settlers coexisted). My point hunting friends (Billy and Jesse) and I hunted this reservoir often 35 years ago. I don’t think I’ve been back more than once or twice since the 1980’s.

The site is hard to hunt; the site is literally littered with rocks, sand, and gravel all of the same or similar color as the predominant artifact material (quartzite). The sheer volume of material coupled with the color, makes it extremely hard to spot artifacts mixed in. Being Early Archaic, the population was nomadic and mostly unsettled as well as being a sparse population. As such, artifacts are relatively scarce there. But generally speaking, the ones found there, if intact, are fine specimens. They are “rarer” given their age but also the craftsmanship; finer flaking, more symmetry, and more aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Through the years I have found some truly spectacular pieces there but countless more broken pieces (also known as heartbreakers).

Hunting points is difficult in the best of conditions. Discerning the difference between a broken stone and a stone arrowhead is inherently problematic; the sheer numbers of non-artifacts versus actual artifacts alone is daunting. To be successful you have to simultaneously look for a number of attributes: color of material and type of material, along with sharp or flaked edges, symmetry, and general outline characteristics like stems of notches. This is compounded by the fact that every artifact made produced dozens and dozens of chips and flakes, called debitage, which is the same material type and color as the artifacts. So you naturally find ten and twenty times the chips as you do artifacts; they are the ultimate red herrings. But you have to stop to pick up and examine every one of them because just lying there, you never know which one is a chip or flake and which is an artifact. And most of the time, artifacts don’t just sit there flat on the ground, fully exposed in full profile. Rather they will be turned on edge, mixed in amongst 36 other similar pieces of material and half (or more) buried in the sand.

 Hunting reservoirs is different than hunting plowed fields as well. There are far more pieces of material on the shores of a reservoir. Think about it – what was once standing ground with a layer of humus and topsoil which can be anywhere between 24” up to 48” or more depending upon the geology of the area, has been flooded and kept underwater for 50 years or more. And periodically through droughts and intentional lowering of the water level, the land becomes the waterline where it is exposed to the actions of the winds and waves. The organic material – the humus and topsoil, erode and dissolve into the water. After a while, all that is left is the sand and gravel of the subsoil – and whatever stones, rocks, or artifacts that may have been held in that soil. So when the water levels fall, and 50’ of shoreline is exposed, any artifacts that were once buried anywhere in that soil now rest on (or to some extent in) the sand and gravel.

The plowed fields have the same amount of artifacts and stone, but unlike the reservoir the soil is still there and everything there is still mixed in the soil. So something deposited thousands of years ago is still deep under the surface. When the plow turns the soil, it only goes down a foot or so and everything deeper remains undisturbed. But through repeated plowing, soil erodes and washes away and the plow cuts a little deeper each time. So the plowed soil is a less concentrated mix of materials, meaning fewer rocks and chips or flakes to look at per square foot, so easier hunting. But of course there are also fewer artifacts to find as well. Balance once again, just like everything else in life!

On that first visit back after all these years I did find one single projectile point – a triangular point – on my first trip out. And that was all I found. I went back a second time a couple of weeks later with more time to spend there and found four pieces, only one of which was complete.

The first thing I noticed was that I no longer have the vision I had 30+ years ago; I was eagle-eyed back then, better than 20-20 vision. I’ve since had cataract surgery on both eyes and have artificial lenses which don’t provide anything even close to 20-20 vision.

The next observation was that I had lost the ability to effectively hunt a shoreline for artifacts. I knew the materials for which to look as well as the colors; and I surely knew the shapes. But the skill of scanning an area while walking and discerning between the 2000 rocks and stones and an artifact had dulled and eroded within me. I found that I had to slow to nearly a standstill and to stoop so as to almost be nose to ground in order to hunt effectively. I have absolutely no doubt that I left artifacts behind unseen and unfound on both hunts, very frustrating! It will improve with time and practice, like anything else. My eyes will again learn to focus on the significant few and to ignore the trivial many.

Which is the other key component to point hunting – time – boots on ground. You have to invest a lot of time to reap the rewards of finding an artifact. A lot of time. It is not like hunting or fishing or any other activity that yields a reward of the pursuit – it requires time spent in pursuit. Of course, not that this is a bad thing; a typical reservoir walk of 3 or 4 hours is spent in complete peace and quiet, removed from traffic and civilization. It is a really nice way to spend some time in nature with the occasional reward of an artifact as part of it.

Speaking of, there is one piece of all this that I have not yet touched upon; one other reward in finding an artifact. The piece in your hand, once seen and picked up, had not been seen or touched by another human since its creator. And that could be three or five or even eight thousand years! The intact piece I found on my last trip is around 6,000 or 7,000 years old, this definitely determined by the artifact type and the years of study and development of artifact typology. Imagine – the first person to touch it since it was dropped or lost for those thousands of years….what a remarkable connection over time.

I hope I have not bored you too much with this longer than usual post dear reader, nor the non-spiritual aspect of it (although there is most definitely a spiritual component to it). I am sure I will return to this again and again as I continue to get back into point hunting.

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