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Shaped in Stone

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Published on: Oct. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 3, 2010

Suddenly, something different caught his eye. Although he saw just a bit of it, the boy knew instantly that it was something made by human hands. He scraped away the moist soil to uncover the arrowhead and pulled it from the earth, feeling its cool weight in his hands. The boy turned and sprinted back up the hill to his family to show them the treasure he had found.

Missouri: Rich in Native American History

Encountering Native American artifacts is a common experience for Missourians. Because of the number of waterways that crisscross our state, Missouri in the past supported large populations of native peoples who left traces of their existence all over our state. These reminders of the past range from the giant platform mounds near St. Louis to areas where the only visible sign is a change in soil composition and coloration from centuries of use as a camp site.

No matter where you live in Missouri, with a bit of practice and basic knowledge of what to look for, you can spot places that likely were used by earlier residents. At these sites and other areas frequented by Native Americans, you are likely to find arrowheads, pottery shards and other indicators of the land's previous residents.

The Ideal Family Activity

Searching for arrowheads and other artifacts is inexpensive, requires no tools other than patience and good vision and can be practiced year-round. Arrowheading combines physical activity with a chance to enjoy the outdoors and plunge head-first into the abundant natural history of our state.

David Shell, a banker in Cape Girardeau, likes to pursue arrowheads with his 9-year-old son. "When I take him," said Shell, "I try to educate him on why we're there and what we're trying to do. I'll point out to him the contour of the land and explain why the people lived in one spot and not another."

Shell first learned about the wonder tied to finding an arrowhead in 1987 when good weather "spoiled" a duck hunt. The clouds were high and the birds weren't flying, so Shell's companion suggested they look for arrowheads. His partner found a small, perfectly formed point after a few minutes of looking, and Shell has been hooked ever since.

Finding Arrowheads

To those who have arrowheading in their blood, finding a "point" is an experience that often transcends words. Holding an object that was crafted by human hands and has remained hidden in the earth for hundreds or even thousands of years evokes mystery and wonder. They try to imagine the creator of the piece, envisioning him or her fashioning the point around a campfire in preparation for the next day's hunt. They feel reverence for the skill involved.

No matter where in the state you live, there were likely Native Americans nearby at some point in the past, but with a little study prior to your first expedition, you can often find out specifically where they lived and worked, improving your odds of successful hunting. Information should be available through your local library, historical society or through the University of Missouri.

Also helpful are soil maps. These are available free from Farm Service Agency offices located in nearly every county. In addition to showing roads, rivers and towns, the maps identify soil types (like sandy loam) that are often an indication of higher ground--ridges and natural levees in formerly swampy areas--used for encampments.

Pay special attention to locations near existing or former lakes and rivers. Once you've noted a likely area, a plat book available from your county's recorder of deeds will allow you to identify landowners to contact to obtain permission to hunt the ground.

Most arrowhead hunters like to take their trips from late fall to early spring. Frequent rain during those months often washes up arrowheads. Also, the ground is usually cleared of crops and has been turned over at that time, making it easier to spot points or the rock chips or flakes that indicate a good area. Fewer weeds, snakes and biting insects at that time of year also makes the experience more pleasant.

Although all you need to hunt artifacts is your eyes and your feet, you may want to bring along a broomstick with a nail driven in one end. You can use it to flip rocks and turn over anything that looks smooth or edgy. After a long day of walking fields and poking at rocks, your lower back will thank you for bringing this handy tool.

Some Ethical Issues

The courtesies involved in looking for arrowheads and other artifacts include the same ones hunters follow. For instance, the first rule of thumb is to always obtain permission from a landowner before entering private property. Landowners are understandably wary of trespassers, in part because of the actions of a few careless people in the past. Fortunately, in many cases, landowners will be happy to grant you access, especially if you ask prior to the day of your trip and each time thereafter. A little consideration will ensure that you will be welcomed back.

However, the guidelines that a responsible arrowhead hunter follows go farther. Limit yourself to seeking artifacts exposed on the surface. Valuable information can be lost forever when even a well-meaning individual begins digging up an area. Should you encounter what seems to be a significant archeological site in the course of your hunt, you should report it to professional archaeologists at the University of Missouri for further investigation. Also, keep in mind that removing or digging for artifacts on public land is usually illegal, as is disturbing gravesites in Missouri, including Indian burial mounds.

There are those who feel that Native American artifacts, such as arrowheads or tools, belong with the land in which they rest, and that removing them is wrong. It is OK to seek traces of people from long ago, but do so in a manner that emphasizes respect and appreciation for the culture and craftsmanship and preserves the rich history and heritage of the original residents of our state. When done with respect for ancient cultures, artifact hunting is an ideal way to enjoy the outdoors with family and friends.

Before Missouri's Written History

Scientists believe humans first arrived in North America between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago, when hunters following the woolly mammoth, mastodon and giant sloth crossed the Bering Strait between Asia and Alaska. They have discovered mastodon bones and rare, early spear points called clovis fluted and folsom fluted left from hunts estimated to have taken place 10,000 years ago in Missouri along the Bourbeuse and Pomme de Terre rivers and in present-day Mastodon State Park, near Kimmswick.

As mastodons died out, the hunters, who roamed great distances in their pursuit, began to spend more time foraging, allowing them to fashion more sophisticated tools as they spent longer periods of time in one place. These people often sought protection from the elements in caves and other natural shelters, such as Graham Cave near Montgomery City, where bone and rock tools, fire pits and debris from food accumulated over the centuries have provided a bonanza for archaeologists.

This long period of transition from big game hunting to a more diversified way of life occurred gradually between 7000 and 1000 B.C. Hunting camps used during this time abound, especially in southeastern Missouri, along natural terraces and levees. Traces left behind by the inhabitants show that they pursued deer, squirrel and rabbit and made use of a variety of vegetables in their wanderings. These people created drills, knives, diggers and scrapers to help them skin and prepare meat, as sites near Sedalia show.

The next prominent phase of Native American culture in Missouri began approximately 1000 B.C. with the advent of pottery for processing and storing food and water. It was during this period that Native Americans fashioned earthworks in various forms for use in religious ceremonies or as burial mounds, including "The Old Fort," a series of ditches and embankments enclosing burial mounds in Van Meter State Park in Saline County. A general concentration of settlements by people of this era stretched along the Missouri River from the mouth of the Lamine all the way to the mouth of the Kansas River.

As technological advancements continued to improve life for these native peoples, they went from living in small, separated villages to forming large towns in the Mississippi Valley. These changes occurred between 500 and 1600 A.D., when the Mississippian Culture dominated. It was then that civilizations became more organized and created the large mound formations that dot the landscape around St. Louis. Native American culture in Missouri would be changed forever with the arrival of European explorers, around 1600 A.D

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