Archaeological society celebrates Native American culture

Union photo by Andy Hallman

Matt Wells remarked that the small blades, like the two seen at the top of this photo, are true
Union photo by Andy Hallman Matt Wells remarked that the small blades, like the two seen at the top of this photo, are true "arrowheads" because they were attached to arrows, while other blades commonly called "arrowheads" by the public are more likely to be knives, spears, drills, or something else.

MT. PLEASANT – Arrowhead collectors assembled at Iowa Wesleyan University Sunday morning, Jan. 19, to show off their finds and rub shoulders with like-minded enthusiasts.

The event was sponsored by the Hawkeye State Archaeological Society, and took place at the Howe Activity Center on the university’s campus. Denny White, one of the organizers of the event, said the gathering is all about appreciating Native American culture and the artifacts it left behind.

“We’re trying to educate the public about how these people lived and died,” White said.

White and his grandson Kaden manned a booth where they displayed arrowheads and other artifacts, all of which White had found himself. White said he became interested in the hobby in 1970. He did a lot of fishing and pheasant hunting, but found that he had a gap between his interests, free time waiting to be filled. He asked a friend for advice about a new hobby, and the friend suggested collecting arrowheads.

The very first year White went looking for arrowheads, he found 113 of them. White has learned that the shape of the arrowhead can hint at the time period when it was used or possibly even the tribe that used it. For instance, a type of arrowhead White has in his collection is called a Snyder point, which was a product of the Hopewell culture, stretching from the middle of Iowa east to Ohio, and spanning from Tennessee to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. According to the website, Snyder point arrowheads were made between 2500 and 1500 B.C.

White said he finds most of his arrowheads around water sources. Why? It’s simple, he explained. The Native Americans needed food, so they hunted animals. And of course, animals needed water, so the natives often hunted them near water sources.

Arrowheads weren’t the only thing on display Sunday. White’s largest artifact was a tooth – a mammoth tooth, to be exact. He found it one day while he was catfishing in the Skunk River. He saw the tooth sticking out of the water, and noticed it was different from the rocks around it. He took it home, and after six weeks of research, determined it was a Columbian mammoth tooth around 16,000 years old.

“The river was very low when I found it. I’d say it only gets that low about every 15 years,” White said. “The tooth was underwater most of the time, so no oxygen got to it [to dissolve it].”

Matt Wells of Macon, Missouri, displayed a shark’s tooth he found in a riverbed in Missouri. He estimated the tooth was around 100 million years old, because it’s been a long time since sharks have swum in Missouri. Wells also showed off a pipe estimated to be 1,500 years old. The pipe is made of clay, and was put in a fire to harden it.

“I’ve been collecting artifacts for the past five years,” Wells said. “I hunt for them along rivers and creeks. There are a lot of good places to find them around Macon.”

Hoyt Grooms of Ottumwa has also been collecting artifacts for the past five years. He hunts for them throughout southeast Iowa, not just in his home county of Wapello but in all the surrounding counties, too.

“It’s kind of a competition, because other people are hunting the same creeks I am,” he said.

Grooms has a YouTube channel where he posts videos of the artifacts he finds. He always makes a point of photographing or videotaping the artifact before he touches it. Grooms said that, because many people walk the same creeks in search of artifacts, most of his finds are fresh, maybe only a few weeks or months after they’ve reached the surface. That’s especially true of the complete arrowheads. Once an arrowhead or other artifact reaches the surface of the dirt, it’s more likely to be carried away by water and broken by other rocks.

Grooms can tell when an arrowhead has been underwater for a long time because it will be stained, usually turned black. However, he can remove the stain by putting the arrowhead in lemon juice, which will turn it back to the rock’s original color.

Henry County resident Alfred Savage has collected Native American artifacts for the past 63 years, and has written for the Central States Archaeological Journal. He and his wife Deb are opening the Old City Hall Artifact Museum at 220 W. Monroe St. Suite 103 in Mt. Pleasant. They will have on display arrowheads, axes and other Native American artifacts from Henry County and beyond. The museum is open from 9 a.m. to noon the first Sunday of each month.

Alfred Savage grew up in Minnesota and later moved to his family’s ancestral home of Salem, Iowa. While doing some digging through historical records, Savage found a map from 1837 showing a series of wigwams near Salem. It was meant to indicate the location of an American Indian encampment. Today, 183 years later, it is a gold mine of artifacts. Savage estimated that 90 percent of his collection has come from that site.

One of Savage’s most unusual pieces is an iron ore axe blade. Iron ore is unheard of as an axe blade, since most blades were granite. Savage discovered that when he put a magnet next to the blade, it stuck. He said the rock must have come from deep within the earth where the temperature is over 2,000 degrees. It’s either that, or the rock came from a meteorite, he said.

A few artifact collectors mentioned how the general public often refers to all American Indian pointed blades as “arrowheads,” when in fact most of the blades found were used in other ways, such as knives, spears, drills, etc. Savage said true arrowheads – blades attached to arrows – were invented by North American Indians around 500 A.D., about 11,500 years after humans settled the continent.

Savage had on display a cache of 20 preform blades that were discovered in Champaign, Illinois, in 1982. A preform is a chunk of rock that has not been finished into a blade, but which is small enough to easily transport or trade. Savage said the Champaign area was a common place for American Indians to barter because it was connected to so many rivers. When the Frito-Lay plant was built in Champaign, it unearthed these preforms buried years ago.

Savage said the excavators dug probably 40 feet into the ground. He said it takes the earth about 500 years to make one foot of soil, so digging that deep below the surface allows modern humans to uncover facts about the distant past. He said the cache of 20 preforms in his possession is about 10,000 years old.