10,000 years beneath the surface
Jeff Amberg and Emily Clay
Bob McMaster has been collecting arrowheads on his family’s Fairfield County farm since he was 5 years old. The former Marine lives near Winnsboro with Sarah, his wife.
“I think my grandfather used to salt the road with arrowheads just to get me out of the house,” he says. Nevertheless, Bob was hooked. The farm, he believes, was once the campground of a long-standing Native American population.
“When these fields were all plowed, there were a lot of arrowheads,” Bob recalls. “We were out on Jackson Creek, which is going down to Little River and eventually goes to the Broad River. This must have been a very prolific area.”
Bob displays some of his impressive artifacts in neat shadow boxes, and Sarah has arranged many more on glass-topped tables in their home. The couple good-naturedly admits that the table-top arrangements were made with only aesthetics in mind. In the middle of concentric circles of impressive arrowheads sits a tiny, carved black stone. Bob thinks it would have been used in a rifle.
“It’s exactly like a flint that you would buy for a reproduction rifle,” he says. “For a Pennsylvania flintlock, that’s exactly the right kind. I picked that up when I was bird hunting one day, and all of a sudden I found these points. I started picking up arrowheads left and right.” His friends continued to hunt quail, while Bob hunted for artifacts.
Albert “Al” C. Goodyear, III, Ph.D.,
now the University of South Carolina’s director of the Southeastern Paleoamerican Survey, also found some Native American artifacts while hunting one day with his friend, Pat Dorn, at Pat’s property on the Broad River. The hunters were parking their trucks on a hill that turned out to be a levee. “I don’t mean the kind the Army Corps of Engineers makes, but a natural, geological levee, which looks like a banana next to a river, where floods crest and dump the sands into a pile,” Al explains. “So, I was looking around, and I saw artifacts that had been washed out of there.” The Dorns gave Al permission to bring in colleague Andy White to excavate the site.
To supplement traditional excavation, Al believes that private artifact collections are essential to help archaeologists gain knowledge about the past. He shares that James L. Michie, who started out as a hobbyist but later earned degrees in archaeology, initiated the systematic study of Paleoindian artifacts in South Carolina by documenting mostly private artifact collections in the 1960s and 1970s.
Archaeologists’ true motive, according to Al, is to gain knowledge about the past by learning more about the people who created arrowhead points, pottery, and other items. “A lot of them show up around Lake Marion in Calhoun County. So that tells us that they would go regularly between there and the Congaree River or the Santee. You don’t know that if you don’t have many artifacts.”
He and his research assistant, Joseph Wilkinson, often talk about how private collectors view Native American artifacts as art, and they see nothing wrong with that duality. Every artifact tells a story. “Our job as archaeologists and scientists is to keep teasing out these stories, then publish that and get it into the museums.” But for the most part, he says, even museums do not have the majority of Native American artifacts. Private collectors do.
Christopher Moore, Ph.D., at USC’s Savannah River Archaeological Research Program, recently collaborated with retired archaeologist Tommy Charles (who had worked closely with James Michie to develop the South Carolina Paleoindian Survey) to publish a field guide, Prehistoric Chipped Stone Tools of South Carolina.
“Tommy Charles went around the state and documented private, local collections in every county … tens of thousands of artifacts,” says Chris, who produced detailed maps based on decades of Tommy’s data collection. Nearly 50 years of data from the collector survey has potential for identifying significant geographic patterns in artifact types and raw materials.
Chris also uses modern scientific methods, including thermoluminescence and optically stimulated luminence dating and crossover immunoelectrophoresis, to learn more about artifacts. “TL dating is something that’s been used to date things like prehistoric pottery,” he says, “but mainly what I do is actually date the sediments or the sand that bury the artifacts.”
His use of crossover immuno-electrophoresis, or blood residue analysis, is even more stunning from a scientific perspective. At White Pond in Elgin, where scientists are researching evidence of a comet’s impact, Al says archaeologists found a 12,000-year-old Dalton point with human blood on it. Chris sends points like this to a lab to extract and test the blood residue.
Archaeologists believe that the blood residues are preserved in microfractures created by the flint-napping process, in which points are carved. Chris says, “When the stone tools are manufactured, it produces tiny microfractures on the stone, and then when the tools are used, the blood can be absorbed into those microfractures. And we think that’s probably the only way that we’re finding blood residues when those things have been buried for thousands and thousands of years in the ground.
“For Paleoindian Clovis-period tools that go back 13,000 years,” Chris continues, “there is archeological evidence that they were hunting large megafauna, such as mastodon or mammoth. And for that comparison, they use modern African elephant antibodies. So, if those similar, related species are present on the tools, they will actually produce a positive reaction.”
He further explains that finding archaeological sites with preserved bones of megafauna is virtually unknown in the Southeast. Blood residue analysis is one way to test Clovis-period stone artifacts to determine if these animals were frequently hunted.
South Carolina archaeologists are accustomed to breaking new ground, both literally and scientifically. Al’s own research at the Topper site, an archaeological excavation on the Savannah River in Allendale County, caused an international stir when his team discovered evidence of human activity that was more than 50,000 years old. Prior to this discovery, scientists believed that people first came to the Americas 13,000 years ago. The library at the University of South Carolina Salkehatchie keeps items from the Topper site on display, including fluted spear points that the Clovis people used for hunting around 13,100 to 12,900 years ago. Al says that an exhibit is planned of specimens collected by a retired USC Salkehatchie math professor, who has collected more than 8,000 points.
Joe Wilkinson, who grew up in Calhoun County, wanted to study archaeology after finding artifacts such as arrowheads, sherds of pottery, and glass in his family’s garden. Having recently earned his master’s degree, he spends his days in a lab on USC’s historic Horseshoe studying an extensive collection of arrowheads bequeathed to the university by Wilma Croft, who gathered artifacts in plowed fields on Cowden Plantation in Aiken County. (It is important to note that federal law prohibits gathering artifacts without express permission of the landowner, and it is illegal on public land.) The Croft collection includes about 6,000 arrowheads, some of which are more than 7,000 years old. Part of the collection’s value lies in the assurance that the artifacts all came from a specific area.
Al says, “What we care about is provenience — the physical location where an object is found. It’s terribly important to us because we want to make maps.” While picking up different arrowheads, he explains they look at the type of raw material, such as chert, which is a form of flint.
The Croft collection includes spears and knives with little teeth that are a hallmark of the Dalton people, according to Al. “They were attached with sinew or, less commonly, plant fibers. They put pine pitch over that to seal it as their natural glue. Because almost all of these things look like points, almost all of them were in hafts (handles), either for knives or for spears.” Hunters would wear a belt to hold several wooden foreshafts so they could reload broken spears.
Archaeologists often can determine where an arrowhead originated by the material used to make it. Rhyolite, for example, a meta-volcanic rock, is found in South Carolina only in the mountainous regions but would more likely come from Western North Carolina or Tennessee. Rhyolite is usually black, but green specimens have been found in North Carolina.
Joe has learned the art of flint-knapping, or creating arrowheads. He knows that chert, which was commonly used to make points, is brown when it is freshly broken and when it oxidizes takes on a yellow hue. Al says that the points’ designs and flaking reveal a great deal about chronology and culture. Scientists can also carbon-date material within a 50,000-year span.
Practically speaking, in an archaeological excavation, scientists can ascertain an artifact’s age by the depth at which it is buried. The introduction of the plow to farming began to bring artifacts to the surface. Flooding also unearths them.
“Everybody who owns land in the countryside or has a farm typically finds arrowheads,” Joe says. “While the plow has disturbed a lot of the original context, we know they’re from a certain location, and we can still salvage information.”
Joe’s research project involves studying a rare type of point called the Southern Hardin. He acknowledges that if he had to rely only on archaeological excavations for data, it would be insufficient. He must rely on private collectors who keep track of where they find arrowheads.
Bob continues to experience joy in hunting for artifacts on his property, though he thinks he has probably found most of them by now. Because flint-napping is a reductive process, arrowhead hunters will discover many chips of waste products. Bob collects those as well so he can avoid picking them up twice.
“I guess it’s the finding of it and holding the arrowhead in your hand and thinking that 10,000 years ago somebody made that, and you might be the first person to find it and put your hands on it since that day,” Bob says.
Al has some words of encouragement for amateur artifact collectors: “You’re in the beginning phase of discovery if you find an arrowhead in your pea patch and you don’t even know what it is.” If you document where you find an artifact in South Carolina, it very well might turn out to be a missing piece to the puzzle of this state’s early civilization.