Over the course of my lifetime I have had an abiding interest in archaeology; in fact, when I was in college I struggled with the idea of making my vocation something in the paleontology/archaeology field, so much so that I took some courses in both. Luckily these courses were considered acceptable for electives under my final-chosen field of wildlife biology but I have never regretted my exposure to those disciplines. During my early career in wildlife with the Virginia Game Department I was fortunate to be a part of the initial formal archaeological surveys done on the Jefferson National Forest (because I knew every inch of my 100,000+ acre national forest management area), and later when a natural resources manager on military lands, I was responsible as a contracting officer and consultant for archaeological surveys on several military bases in Virginia, North Carolina and Texas. This exposure to professional archaeologists (and the subsequent training I received through the Defense Department in archaeological contracting) only furthered my interest in the prehistory of our region. I had been a surface collector of artifacts since childhood, but my exposure from college forward taught me first to ‘do no harm’, and secondly to keep careful records of my finds. When it comes to archaeology the importance of these two concepts cannot be overstated.
Our region of the central Appalachians has recorded and documented human-occupation archaeological sites that reach back over 15,000 years. During that span of time humans have moved over the entirety of our landscape. We can see the evidence of this occupation in the worked stone tools we find on the land. In 1963 and 1964 the Smithsonian Institution, under a grant from the National Science Foundation, conducted the first broad archaeological survey of 17 counties in Southwest Virginia; and during that ‘quick and dirty’ survey recorded 229 prehistoric human occupation sites dating as far back as the Clovis era of Paleo-Indian occupation. The number and diversity of sites found during that survey stunned the investigators, and began the new era of investigation that challenged the heretofore accepted ideas of prehistoric occupation of the Appalachians and North America.
There are plenty of folks that like to ‘hunt arrowheads’. Most finds are casual but there are a number of folks that participate in the activity intensively. Unfortunately because some artifacts can have a monetary value there have been some potentially important sites destroyed by unscrupulous collectors and the scientific value of those sites has been forever lost. Also many well-meaning or unintentionally destructive folks have ruined sites that could have provided much knowledge by digging. If you have interest in this sort of thing I beg you, please, get in touch with your state historical or archaeological societies and get their guidelines for surface collecting. Of course it is against the law to do any collection whatsoever on state or federally-controlled land without the requisite permits and collection on private land requires permission (per trespass laws). My first plea would be please, DO NOT DIG!; and if you do surface collect, keep a good record of what you found and where it was found. I have several notebooks full of plan drawings of sites and artifact finds from over the years and these have been useful to identify sites that have significance to professional archaeologists. Also, I must remind all that it is a federal crime to disturb any prehistoric human burial, and discovery of such a place must be reported to the authorities as soon as possible. Since the passage of the Native American Graves Repatriation Act any prehistoric Native American remains must be returned to the tribal authority which governs that site location.
So, where do we look for artifacts or signs of prehistoric occupation? Prehistoric people moved across the landscape using the water features (rivers and creeks) and this should be your first clue. Also, as time progressed, the areas near these water sources provided camping, hunting or village sites, and many of these sites show artifacts from multiple periods of time as people occupied, abandoned and re-occupied those sites. It has been my experience here in the central Appalachians that virtually every creek or spring seep will have some level of occupational evidence somewhere along it; even this past summer when Cecelia and I were putting in a new garden in our horse pasture, along a spring-seep creek, we found a variety of very early projectile points and blades on a small, concentrated area. This is not hard to reason out; if people have been here for that long it would figure that they would have visited just about every nook and cranny of our hills. And yes, we documented our finds and stored the collected artifacts accordingly. There are thousands of these undiscovered micro-sites throughout our Appalachian Mountains; the significance of them is in their totality—taken together, they paint a picture of how humans moved over the landscape over an incredible length of time, and may contain clues to their diet and habits. Today we worry about car accidents; at one time right where we are sitting at this moment, people worried about getting stepped on by a mastodon while they slept! If that doesn’t add a bit of perspective to your life, I don’t know what will.
I have included with this submission a photograph of a prehistoric human skull, a woman between 25 and 35 years of age. About the time that the Smithsonian was conducting its survey in the mid-1960’s, a distant cousin of mine and some of his college friends were ‘pot hunting’ artifacts for beer money. He and his companions traded some of their finds with a fellow living in the Broadford area of Smyth County for an incomplete human skeleton. That skeleton remained in a cardboard box on his garage shelf for forty years until I found out about it, and I finally got it away from him with the idea of returning it to its proper, legal place (current Indian policy is to reinter remains at the site of removal, or in closest proximity). It took two years but through the work of the Virginia State Historic Preservation office (and Mr. Tom Klatka, who runs that office), the United States Forest Service and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Historic Preservation office, we were able to return those remains to the Cherokee. The EBCI and the USFS executed a Memorandum of Agreement, and as a result of that agreement a small piece of National Forest in Southwest Virginia was designated for reburial of Native American remains found in Southwest Virginia. On a warm June day and far from prying eyes, a few folks gathered to rebury this young woman. The ceremony was short and dignified; and I cannot honestly remember a more meaningful and poignant moment.
Among the many artifacts in my collection there is a small piece of stone, believed to be a tool used to shave and straighten small wooden spear shafts. On the face of that stone is an engraved stylized sunburst: when I hold that artifact I wonder about who held it last and what they may have been thinking when they took the time to grave that picture. Was it just a whim, a decoration of something personal perhaps—or was it an unconscious gift to those that might follow?
I feel very lucky to be the one to continue its story.