Wayback Lowcountry: Hunting for arrowheads

You can find Native American artifacts here if you know where to go and what to look for. 

Story + Artwork by Michele Roldán-Shaw

It took me a few years to find my prize spearpoint. I’d put in the time ambling along dirt roads — especially after a rain — and combing freshly ploughed fields, as my old-timer informants advised. They made it seem like finding artifacts around here was easy, and certainly the points and potsherds strewn around their homes bore this out. Yet somehow for all my wanderings I never managed to find more than a few broken flint chips.

Until my 24th birthday. I was on a little solo expedition near the Donnelly Wildlife Management Area, hiking deep in the heart of extensive dirt tracks that crisscross woods and wetlands. The road looked like it had turned to a mud bog in summer rains, then gotten baked dry by a merciless sun until it split into a network of cracks — prime hunting ground for arrowheads. They get unearthed this way and sometimes conveniently display themselves on little raised pedestals after all the mud has washed off around them. Yet I wasn’t actively looking that day, just walking and talking on my cell phone, when suddenly I happened to glance down and there was a beautiful 3-inch-long spearhead! It had a light buff color with blushes of rich ochre and was museum quality with only the tiniest chip missing from the point. I couldn’t believe it. A short distance away I found a nice white arrowhead and another slate gray point with the butt end broken off. I’ve never found another arrowhead since.

America has been home to human beings for millennia. But exactly how many? It was long thought that the first people arrived 13,000 years ago, yet in recent years that date has been pushed further and further back. South Carolina made a memorable contribution to the debate when archeologists at the Topper Site, an ancient chert quarry on the banks of the Savannah River in Allendale County, announced compelling evidence of human activity dating back 50,000 years. As with any sensational new finding in the scientific community, it caused international controversy and is still disputed today.

Here in the Lowcountry Native inhabitants were laid back seafood eaters, as their old middens of oyster, mussel and clam shells attest. But they also enjoyed an abundance of wild game: deer, rabbit, coon, squirrel, quail, wild turkey, waterfowl, even bear and bison that once roamed this far east. The land we now stand on has been littered with projectile points. Big spearheads are impressive, but I find the tiny “bird points” most fascinating because of their minute size and the skill it must have taken to manufacture them. I always thought that bird point referred to the intended prey; after all, birds are small, so the arrowhead should be too, right? But in fact these beautiful little killers were meant to take down big game (or human enemies!) as their small size made them deadlier by increasing the speed of the projectile. 

An arrowhead found locally might be more than 10,000 years old, which is exciting to ponder. A less happy thought is what happened to the descendants of those people: genocide, displacement, decimation by disease, attempted erasure from the collective culture. We can’t change the past — but we can honor those whose mere continued presence bears testament to the strength of their people. According to a 2016 study, 13,000 Native Americans live in South Carolina. Of the 29 tribes thought to have been living here at the time of European contact, just 10 are currently recognized by the state government, and only one has federal recognition. But indigenous people are still here. They are not merely an ancient history of arrowheads, potsherds and middens. They are the original Americans, and they deserve the dignity of acknowledgment.

Sharp points 

The best places to look: dirt roads, plowed fields, eroding banks

If you find one: visit projectilepoints.net to identify the type

Worth a trip: the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., which has a gorgeous collection of hundreds of arrow and spearpoints arrayed in an artful swirl

Contemporary tribes in South Carolina: Pee Dee, Waccamaw, Catawba, Cherokee, Edisto, Santee, Sumter, Natchez, Yamasee, Chicora

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