What is in this article?:
- Mississippi Delta farmland has produced some of the finest examples of Native American stonework and pottery yet found in the United States. Terry Smith has spent the last 20 years amassing an astounding, museum-quality collection of Delta Indian artifacts.
Terry Smith, Smith & Weiland, Clarksdale, Miss., holds a fine example of an Indian celt made from green stone. He often surveys and does engineering work for Delta farmers, and has spent the last 20 years amassing a museum-quality collection of Delta Indian artifacts.
When he talks about Native American culture and Delta history, Smith takes a very humble approach. “It’s not about the pieces; I want people to feel what it was like when the Indians lived here. I have showpieces that are important to see, but what I really want is for people to be able to touch them and go back to a different time and say, ‘This rock was fashioned 2,000 years in the past; this is from the time of Christ.’ I want people to recognize that Indians were actually farming with the hoes, chopping with the celts, and hunting with the spearpoints.”
Smith is perfectly poised not only to search for Indian artifacts, but also to know precisely where to look. As the owner of Smith & Weiland, a surveying and engineering company in Clarksdale, Miss., he covers a tremendous amount of Delta farmland in Arkansas and Mississippi and his work has literally given him a feel for the lay of the land. “It’s not all Indian artifacts that I find. I come across a lot of historical sites too, first settlers that came to this part of the country. Those two seem to coincide, and you’ll almost always see the first U.S. settlements being right on top of Indian sites. It was the good high ground that was the last to flood. It’s usually a rich spot that has all the criteria you would look for to settle. The same things that were attractive to the first white settlers had long been attractive to the Indians.”
(For photos of Smith's collection, see Delta farmland reveals secrets of Indian history)
Twenty years ago Smith began searching in earnest for Indian history. He was working out in the field, walking farmland, and the realization of the archeological treasures beneath his feet took hold — and history’s grip on him has only gotten stronger over time. “It’s the kind of thing where you look down and can’t believe what you’re seeing. A piece has been laying there for 1,000 years or maybe a lot more. I’m the first one to come along and find it. It can literally consume me if I’m not careful. I’ve got to balance it between getting survey work done and milling around for artifacts. Sometimes you just happen across a spot and you find one thing. You then become convinced that you’re fixing to find something else of significance.”
The Indian sites are almost invariably found on ridges or slight rises in the land near water. Smith may hit a particular site or field at any time of the year, even when crops are growing, but when spring is near, the conditions can be ideal. After a field has been prepped for planting and a strong rain has washed down dirt, he pays close attention and feels the pull of the rows. Often, the arrowheads and points take on an umbrella-like positioning, perched just above the dirt-line when the rain carries away the surrounding soil. After 20 years of watching and learning, knowing when to look is almost a sixth sense for Smith. “You visit these farm fields enough and you can feel when the possibilities are strongest. The conditions are right and you can just sense it.”
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There was a time, back in the early years when Smith was just beginning to scour farmland, when he looked for anything and everything. That time is gone; maybe swallowed by the immensity of his collection. The sheer number of objects (and the space to hold them) has brought a degree of discrimination to Smith’s hunts. “I’m looking for big items and I’m traveling fast. It’s fair to say I don’t find many tiny objects anymore, maybe like beads.” For Smith, the “big items” that lure him into the furrows, for hours on end, are celts.