It’s the tiniest window of exposure. Buried for a thousand years or much more, an arrowhead comes to the surface as it’s turned over by a tractor or pushed up through the crust by time. The dirt soon shifts and the window begins to close as the arrowhead is swallowed once again by the ground and disappears.

That brief blink of time in between is precisely what Terry Smith is searching for.

On a sticky Delta afternoon in Clarksdale, Miss., Smith parks his truck in the turnrow of a cotton field that rubs up against the Sunflower River. He scans the land, motions toward a barely perceptible rising ridge and begins walking toward it, dragging along a building sense of anticipation. He begins moving down the furrows at a rapid pace, sweeping his eyes several rows over the periphery to the left and right as he walks.

With his neck craned downward, Smith speaks at a staccato clip while he searches and his words peel back a layer from what moments before was an indistinct furrow. He points out chert flakes, pottery shards, mussel shells, color gradations in the soil, and much more.

Without warning, Smith goes silent, stops short, picks up a nondescript lump from the ground, and begins brushing away the dirt.

He has been in the field for less than five minutes and is already holding a fist-sized Indian sharpening stone. Smith grins and runs his finger over the flat, smoothed side of the large stone. “It’s a little bit of an addiction. Yes, yes it is. When I find a good piece, it motivates me to cover more and more ground.”

 

(For photos of Smith's collection, see Delta farmland reveals secrets of Indian history)

 

The pause is finished. Smith takes off fast down another furrow, eyes cast down on a hopeful prize — and his enthusiasm is absolutely infectious.

What lies beneath

American farmland contains the hidden vestiges of Native American history, and the Mississippi Delta has produced some of the finest examples of Native American stonework and pottery yet found in the United States. Smith has spent the last 20 years amassing an astounding, museum-quality collection of Delta Indian artifacts. The amount of individual pieces is stunning: celts, boatstones, hammer stones, a vast array of points and arrowheads, hoes, innumerable pottery samples, marbles, raw rocks, pots, bone implements, drills, jewelry, banner stones, gorgets, and much more.

The hunt for Native American historical items has long been tainted by grave robbers, thieves of every stripe, forgeries, lost history, missed opportunity, and hoarders. Smith runs counter to the current of base greed. For Smith, the pieces he finds are not about dollar value — they’re the key to a vanished world. Ask him a question about American Indians or Delta history, and he will pour out a lesson. “Sometimes I’ll go to a school and show a group of kids — they’re just mesmerized. I get excited just to share; for someone else to learn and appreciate.”