You can help to piece together the past

Most native-American artifacts are not in museums. They're in nearby forests, under the local grocery store, or buried in your backyard.

Indians lived all across what is now the United States. They constantly made tools and weapons to help them build homes, make clothing, and hunt animals. You may be stepping on buried artifacts every time you walk to school or go shopping.

That's very good news for amateur archaeologists (ahr-kee-OHL-uh-jists), people who search for evidence of past cultures.

If you know where to look, you'll likely find something that an ancient American once held in his hands. And since the first humans on this continent arrived at least 13,000 years ago, that object might be very, very old.

Kenneth Tankersley is a professor of anthropology at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. He says that most significant discoveries of Indian artifacts have been made by collectors, not by academics or professionals.

"Almost all of the major archaeological discoveries have been made by amateurs, collectors, avocationals, everyday people rather than professional archaeologists," Professor Tankersley says.

Of course, most collectors don't discover an ancient city or Ice Age cave painting. Projectile points (the sharp stone pieces Indians made for hunting) are the most common finds. They may lie anywhere and everywhere, though it's better to hunt for them in some places than in others.

Native Americans made the points from varieties of quartz (chalcedony, chert, flint) and other rocks that were relatively easy to work and could be made sharp. But the process wasn't rudimentary. Look at the symmetry and elegance of some of these points. The ancient makers seem to have taken pride in their work.

The final product was often leaf-shaped, with a short tip and ridged sides, about 1-3/4 to 3-3/4 inches long. People call them arrowheads, but most were not shot from a bow. Native Americans probably didn't begin using bows and arrows until about 500 BC. That's why archaeologists refer to them as "projectile points." Many were actually spear tips.

The points were often attached to carefully straightened wooden shafts using sinew from large animals, like deer. The binding might have been strengthened with pine tar or resin - sticky sap from pine trees.

No one knows for sure, but scholars estimate that individual hunters made handfuls of points every year. In New England, where Indians didn't develop an agriculture-based economy until about 1,100 BC, hunting and pointmaking might have been a daily activity.

During what archaeologists call the Paleoindian period (about 12,000 to 15,000 years ago), native Americans made large points to hunt big game - caribou or mastodons. As the mix of animals changed, the points changed, too. As their game got smaller (ducks and geese, perhaps), the points got smaller, too.

"Projectile points went through the same kind of stylistic adjustment," says Tankersley. "Artifacts, like hats, or any other aspect of material culture, go through fads, and, thus, are subject to change through time and across space." The changes help scientists date the points today.

Starting a collection is fairly easy. You need sharp eyes and a willingness to walk a lot. Indians lived and roamed pretty much everywhere. But farmland is a good place to begin. Experienced collectors suggest searching in autumn, just after farmers have harvested their crops and turned under the stubble. Many people also look through construction sites after ground has been broken. In either case, it's very important to ask permission first. It's also best to discuss upfront who gets to keep any artifacts you find.

Before you search, do some homework. Think about where Indians would have liked to live. They were probably close to fresh water - a river, creek, or lakeshore. A low rise is a good place for a settlement, since it is well-drained and easy to defend.

Know what to look for, too. "It's good to know the history of an area," says William Moody, former chairman of the South Shore and North River chapter of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society. "You can go to the local chapter of the state's archaeological society to learn what kind of materials are common in a specific area." (A list of national and state organizations is at: ~kesmith/TNARCHNET/archsoc99.html)

These groups have a host of information for beginners, like topographical maps and charts for classifying the age of a projectile point. Many groups also sponsor digs where members can volunteer and learn the basic skills of archaeological excavation.

It is illegal to remove an artifact from state or federal land, or to disturb a burial site.

Start with some training, since working with artifacts is a big responsibility. And don't dig into the soil without professional help.

"When you excavate a site," says Curt Hoffman, an anthropology professor at Bridgewater State College in Bridgewater, Mass., "you are essentially destroying it. The relationship objects have with each other gives us information, like who worked there and what they did."

Collect what's on the surface to your heart's content, but please contact an archaeological society if you find what might be a significant site. "You don't know what the future of that property is going to be," Professor Hoffman points out. "The state could end up registering it as an archaeological site and require work be done there."

Taking time to collect the way professionals do is rewarding, collectors say, because you may help future scholars.

"It's part of the fun," Mr. Moody says. "You can keep notes on what you found, draw a sketch, catalog it, give it a catalog number, describe where you found it."

You can describe the location of a find by using a compass and marking off paces from a landmark. Some collectors carry surveying equipment or even a GPS (Global Positioning System), which uses a satellite network to determine precise longitude and latitude.

"There should be a commitment to curate the material," Hoffman says. "Make sure it's stored in an orderly fashion, has the location, and is labeled." That way, if someone wants to compare your finds with those at another site, it's possible to do so. (You can find more information about organizing a collection and chat with other collectors at:

Hoffman is currently leading a team of volunteers and students in an excavation of an artifact site in Middleboro, Mass. Discovered in 1986, the site is from 3,000 to 5,000 years old, and was likely a work station for manufacturing stone artifacts and other items. Digging has uncovered pendants, ceremonial stones, and tools likely used by the forebears of the Indians who greeted the first Pilgrim settlers.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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