The day I found my first arrowhead was a powerful experience. As it lay in the palm of my hand, I was overwhelmed with questions: where did it come from, how old was it, and who made it? Like finding buried treasure, the stemmed point was a link to our distant past. I was hooked, setting out on a journey of discovery
that continues today. Along the way I’ve met other arrowhead hunters, collectors, and archaeologists who share my obsession with these ancient artifacts.
Virginia is rich in lithic relics. Some are crudely fashioned; others are works of art. As I learned more about our region’s earliest inhabitants, I realized there was so much more to the story of Virginia’s historical past than those first encounters between Native Americans and early European colonists.
Our past stretches back to the last great ice age, the glacial maximum, when the Laurentide ice sheet covered much of Canada and a good deal of the northern US, some 20,000 years ago. The ice sheet covered a quarter of the planet’s landmass, varying from two miles thick to one mile at its leading edge, and sea levels were more than 300-400 feet lower than today.
No one knows for sure whether the first Americans
came across the land bridge linking Asia and North America (Beringia), or whether they crossed the Atlantic ice sheet from Europe. Regardless, the first arrivals were hunter-gatherers, following the herds of mammoths, mastodons, and other grazers as they roamed the continent.
It took formidable weapons to slay a mammoth or mastodon. Thanks to the fluted projectile points left behind, the first population explosion has been called the Clovis people, whose peripatetic bands dropped more than 4000 spear points from coast to coast. Called Clovis points, after the first one discovered near Clovis, NM, over the years numerous Clovis points have been recovered in Virginia and along the Delmarva.
Early coastal inhabitants camped on low terraces beside rivers and streams, places where game came to water and feed. The bounties of the sea supplemented their hunting. They used a variety of stone tools—projectile points, knives, scrapers, axes, hammers, mortar and pestles, drills, mullers, and a host of other implements.
Quality material was treasured for its ability to be knapped into a variety of weapons and tools—quartzite, jasper, rhyolite, flint, and chert. Raw material was often transported great distances from quarries north and west. Flint knappers possessed essential skills that ensured the survival of their people, providing whatever was needed to support their particular lifestyles.
As the climate slowly warmed, sea levels rose, forcing coastal inhabitants inland. Many of the large fauna became extinct, replaced by smaller game that required a variety of projectile points. By 700 AD in North America the bow and arrow began replacing large spear points and atlatls for hunting and warfare. By typing a point, one can reasonably date how old it may be.
As temperatures moderated, tundra and boreal forests gave way to deciduous forests that provided nuts, fruits, and berries. Roaming bands that once followed game herds for great distances, now banded together in larger groups, staying within smaller, resource-rich areas. By the time the first Europeans arrived, indigenous people were also practicing agriculture. Through each stage of evolution, flint knappers’ tools evolved also. It is the results of their handiwork that artifact hunters and archeologists continue to collect and study.
So how do you find Indian relics? The answer may quite simply be at your feet. Beginners often find them by accident, like I did. Others have learned the art of artifact hunting from others. Many successful hunters love to talk about their favorite spots but jealously guard their locations. Surface hunting is the most common means for locating artifacts that are no longer in situ, meaning they have been removed from their original context by natural or man-made disturbances.
Artifact hunting requires time, patience, and a willingness to learn about the past in order to discover the past. Years ago, farm fields yielded up vast numbers of artifacts but, with the advent of no-till farming, field hunting is no longer reliable. Today, artifact hunters must understand the lifestyles of native peoples, how and where they may have lived or worked, in order to recover artifacts.
“Arrowheads are just the tip of the iceberg, although clearly they are the most popular artifacts folks look for,” says George Franklin of Clay Bank. “There are many different types of artifacts if you know what to look for; their tools were surprisingly sophisticated.”
His hands turn over a large stone that looks to all the world like a round tan rock until he points out the edges that have been worked down, the thumb depressions and finger holds created for holding the stone. “Many of these tools were created for people who were ambidextrous,” he points out. “All of these rocks have been broken in a certain way to accomplish specific tasks; cracking open bones to extract marrow, cleaning fish, cracking open nuts, and crushing berries.”
George has been searching fields, riverbanks, and woods since he was a boy. He began noticing recurring
patterns in certain stones, and realized he was looking at implements fashioned centuries before. His friends chided
him about his obsession until he shared his findings, sparking interest in others.
One of his pieces, found along Queens Creek, is made of material indigenous to the western part of the state, evidence that ancient hunters traveled long distances to bring back material ideal for knapping. A chunk of quartzite showed numerous chips removed that likely produced tiny bird points.
The late Mark Small of Gwynn’s Island amassed an impressive collection of over 4000 arrowheads. For more than forty years, he and friend David Snow hunted arrowheads on the beaches and marshes surrounding the island, and along the region’s many rivers, creeks, and marshes.
“I met Mark in 1975 in the 10th grade and he was already collecting,” David recalls. “By the early 1980s we were hunting everywhere; just pack into the boat and go. Mark must have hunted 3-5 times a week. If he wasn’t working, he was in a boat or on a beach somewhere.” His extensive collection reflects some of the very best in regional arrowheads.
Over the years artifact hunters and archaeologists have clashed over hunting ethics. Most casual hunters acquire legal surface finds; arrowheads and tools lying on a beach, in a creek bottom, or in a farm field, far from its original source. Sadly, a few unscrupulous hunters have dug up and robbed ancient burial sites and archaeological caches, giving all artifact hunters a bad name.
The fact is, before federal and state laws were written to protect significant archaeological sites, interstate and building construction unearthed or destroyed thousands of artifacts across the country before archaeologists could retrieve them.
The goals of the two groups are different: hunters are interested in finding arrowheads, many in situ, and see themselves as caretakers of the past, protecting them from the next high tide or farm machinery. Archaeologists see them as cultural resources with something to be learned from the context of their locations. It’s a long-standing debate.
Regardless of the season, hunters should use common sense when it comes to proper attire, water, food, and equipment. A plethora of books, blogs, forums, and online videos exist to help guide you, from pre-hunt preparation to identifying your discoveries. As you step outside, away from the comforts of home, and into a world you may never have explored before, success or failure depends on how well you’ve prepared for the hunt.
If traipsing for miles in search of arrowheads sounds unappealing, but you wouldn’t mind owning some, online auction sites sell arrowheads but, buyers beware! Many arrowheads that are advertised as ancient may be convincing reproductions made by modern flint knappers, who are as skilled in their craft as their ancient counterparts. It takes a trained eye to spot the difference, and even experts can be misled. Finding a reputable dealer who deals in authentic artifacts requires almost as much work as finding them yourself.
Whether you find your own, or purchase one, keep in mind each artifact tells a story — of a time, place, and lifestyle of our indigenous people. What, where, and how they hunted and lived; a physical connection to the past, and proof of mankind’s continuity. Happy hunting!