Wednesday, May 30, 2018


   LONG before I was an author, a teacher, a father, a husband, or a pastor, or any of the other hats that I wear every day, I was an arrowhead collector.  I found my first one when I was five years old, and got seriously into collecting them when I was twelve or so.  Which means that for over forty years now, I have trekked along creek and river beds, washed out gullies, eroded shorelines, and plowed fields in search of these little stone points and the other artifacts made by the first Americans. By the time I graduated high school, I had over 1200 complete artifacts - mainly arrowheads and spearheads, plus a few other assorted relics of different types, as well as box after box of broken ones.  Today, my collection totals almost 9000 whole pieces, all of them painstakingly catalogued in one massive notebook that I started writing in back in 1977.

   But in recent years, my collecting has slowed down a lot.  Work takes a toll, doing book events nearly every Saturday is another factor, and more than anything, helping my family as we provide home care for my invalid mother-in-law often leaves me too exhausted to even think about getting out and hiking on Saturdays, when I am off work and free to do so.  The last time I went artifact hunting before this past weekend was in March, one of the longest gaps in my collecting history.  So, with school done for the year and summer looming ahead, I decided that Memorial Day was going to be devoted to the search for artifacts!

   I almost talked myself out of it.  My regular partner has had some health issues and isn't able to get out much, the forecast high Monday was in the upper 90's, plus nobody else was free to go with me!  I woke up at 7 AM Monday morning and stared at the ceiling a long time while I tried to make up my mind if it was worth it to get out or not.  But doggone it!  I wanted to find an arrowhead, even if it was a beat-up, damaged example of the most common sort of point in our area (known as the Gary point, in case you were wondering.  About 65% of all points found here in NE Texas are Gary points).  So I got up, pulled on a tattered pair of cargo pants and my favorite hunting shirt (one with big pockets that button down and can hold a lot of small stone pieces), then clapped my "Indiana Jones" hat on my head, and out the door I went, headed to the Sulphur River.

   The North Sulphur is a mecca for fossil and artifact collectors from all over Texas - indeed, from all over the world.  I have met collectors from Maryland, Germany, California, and Maine in the river at one time or another (probably other places as well).  It is an artificially channeled river; once a winding East Texas creek, it was straightened in the 1920's so that it would drain more quickly and not flood the surrounding farmlands every year.  But water that runs faster carries away more soil, and the channel that was twenty feet wide and ten feet deep when it was dug is now a hundred yards wide and forty feet deep, thanks to the wonders of erosion.  Most of the time the river is pretty dry - a meandering stream of water running through countless gravel bars.  Often, in the heat of the Texas summer, it dries up altogether.  Cutting as deep as it does, it washes out Indian artifacts from the top 20 feet or so of loam, Pleistocene animal bones from the yellow clay layer beneath, and Cretaceous marine fauna from the blue/grey shale that forms the bottom of the river today.  So on a given trip, you might find bits of bone and enamel from mammoths and mastodons, a vertebrae from a mosasaurus, a shark's tooth, or an Indian arrowhead.  Sometimes you find all three on the same gravel bar!

   When I got to the river a little after 8:30, there were two trucks parked at the bridge I had wanted to put in at - I could see several hunters already meandering on the gravel bars downstream.  No worries; I have hunted this river since 1987 and know more than one entry point!  I took off down a county road towards an old gravel ramp I knew of, not quite as well known to hunters from outside our area.  As I was bopping down the road, I spotted a small snake in the middle of it.  As previously noted on this blog, I LOVE snakes, so I got out and caught him, snapped a quick picture, and then deposited him in the ditch on the side of the road he was headed for.  He was a Prairie Kingsnake, one of my favorite local species, and very docile.  I figured that finding him was maybe a bit of a good luck charm!  Sure enough, when I got down to the old ramp, no one was parked there, so the good luck had already begun.

    The ramp is a sad shadow of its glory days, when it was an actual rock road regularly used every summer by county road crews hauling gravel (and who knows how many nice points and fossils!) out of the river to pave local roads with.  Since the state forbade motor vehicles operating in rivers about a decade ago, the old ramps have all been abandoned to the elements.  There is still a pretty decent trail here, albeit an overgrown one - but the last six feet or so is a pretty steep scramble, and an even harder climb out.  But, "Indiana Smith" was on the prowl, ready to come home with a nice artifact of some sort - or even an ugly one!  So I scrambled down into the river and started looking.

   Normally I go upstream from this ramp, because there are several miles of solid gravel bars with only one or two water holes you have to wade through.  But this day I looked downstream and saw that, where normally there was only water with two or three small bars showing, now there were solid gravel bars for a half mile or so, with only a little water flowing in between.  So I started searching, eyes to the ground, flicking over every rock that looked like it might be pointed or have a worked edge.  I found a small fossilized snail and a few bits of mineralized bone in the first few minutes, so I felt like I was off to a good start.  There were some footprints there, but most of them were partially washed away by the last rain shower several days before, so I had no recent competition at least!

    After about 30 minutes of slowly crisscrossing back and forth, keeping my line of footprints about 3 feet over from my last pass - the most effective way to avoid missing anything - I got my first artifact.  It was half buried in the sand, but it was unmistakably flaked.  I pulled out my phone and took an "in situ" picture, and then flipped it out.  It was a small, ovate knife blade - no shoulders or stem, but carefully flaked and shaped, a definite "counter".  I put it in my pocket, happy that my nearly two month long dry spell had been broken.  A few minutes later, I found a fossilized mosasaur tooth, and then, after that, a nice colorful bit of mastodon enamel.  It was shaping up to be a pretty good day, but boy! it was getting hot.  I was already halfway through my first bottle of Gatorade.

   About an hour later, having picked up a few other odds and ends, I spotted an odd piece of bone a few feet away.  Now, in the river there are two kinds of bone.  Fossilized bone from the Cretaceous period is completely petrified and is usually black, grey, or brown.  But more recent bone - either the odd bits from the Pleistocene period, or the far more common cow, deer, and horse bones that wash into the river from the surrounding farmlands - are still white.  This piece was white, so I knew it wasn't a fossil, but the end looked oddly squared off.  I decided to check it out on my next pass, when it would be right in my path.  So I made my way to the bank, turned around, and headed back, keeping an eye out for it.  When I got close, I saw that the end was indeed artificially squared off - not only that, but as I bent over, I saw that the edges were incised in a crosshatched pattern! 

   Bone artifacts are rare in this region, and usually when you find them they are badly weathered. Over the years I have found several bone awls - most of them in bad condition, but a few still nicely polished.  I had one drilled bear tooth that I found in 2004, but unfortunately I sold it a few years later when we were hard up for money.  Not far from where I was hunting on this trip, some six years ago, I had found a drilled conch shell pendant.  But I had never found a piece of incised bone before!  I was so excited I forgot all about taking an "in situ" shot.  Instead, I scooped up the piece so I could study it more closely.  It was about five inches long, made of some pretty thick, heavy bone - most likely a bison femur, flat, and tapered to a point at one end.  The top was squared off, and on both sides it had that crosshatch pattern carved deep into the bone.  It was weathered, but not too severely - you could still make out some of the original polish in places. 

   What was it?  A bone spearhead, a netmaking tool, a dagger?  The edges were too blunt and thick for it to have served as a knife, but the thin, tapered point sure could have penetrated any animal's hide if driven with a fair amount of force.  Even as I finished hunting the string of gravel bars I was on, I kept pulling it out and looking at it.  I found a few other things - a broken dart point, another mosasaur tooth, and some small pieces of fossilized bone and shell - but my day was made.  By 11 AM I was turned around, heading back to the old gravel ramp, and then up and out of the river.  My hands were still shaking slightly as I held my remarkable find, and I couldn't wait to hear people's opinions on it at the next artifact show. 

   It's been a long time since I found a truly memorable artifact, but on this day that is exactly what I got.  My summer was off to a fine start, and I know there is another killer artifact out there, somewhere, ready to come home with me on the next trip!

    If you would like to see the pictures from this trip, they are posted in this thread at my favorite artifact forum:

  And please, don't forget to check out my new author website:

Thanks, as always, for reading this chronicle of my life.

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