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.”

Forgotten history

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.”

 

Want the latest in ag news delivered daily to your inbox? Subscribe to Delta Farm Press Daily.

 

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.

Celts and arrowheads

Celts were used as hatchets or utility tools and are difficult to find. They are Smith’s item of choice and he has boxes of them — a remarkable assortment of stones and styles. Celts were often not made in the traditional flaking style of arrowheads, but shaped with a pecking process instead. With a hard hammer stone, Indians sometimes crafted celts by patiently pecking away — a drawn-out and laborious task. With a smooth surface and distinct coloration, celts are ideal for a fast-moving Smith to spot.

 

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

 

But regardless of the stone — big or small — Smith marvels at the technological prowess possessed by the Native Americans. Shaping even the simplest form of an arrowhead (He has boxes and jars overflowing with arrowheads.) involved complicated technique and artisanship. “There was a very distinct process of heat-treating the rock. They changed the structure and nature of the rock using controlled heat, and stoked a fire to a certain level with deep coals and then threw sand on the coals. That sand then gets extremely hot and acts like a filter, letting the heat through in a controlled fashion. If a raw rock was just thrown on coals, it would heat up too much on one side and fracture. The raw rocks were put on the sand, covered with a second layer of sand, and then allowed to bake. When the heat and time were right, the rocks were removed and struck. When done right, it put a sheer fracture on the rocks — engineering to some degree. You can’t second-guess that the Indians didn’t have a deep understanding and know-how of the mechanics of stone.”

Losing Indian sites forever

For all of Smith’s enthusiasm, there is a shade of regret. “I don’t cover the ground that I used to, mainly because the prime ground for covering is gone.” Smith is referencing the landscape changes brought about by modern farm machinery. As he explains, in the 1950s and 1960s, field conditions were near perfect for finding Indian artifacts. There was a convergence of farming technology and circumstance; cheap fuel and unprecedented tractor power transformed the strength of modern agricultural implements. Producers were able to reach down and turn the sub-level of their farming bed up. While they were flipping ground and pulling nutrients to the top — farmers were also bringing up Indian items that hadn’t seen light for thousands of years.

“A lot of the material found today is just stuff that’s being reflipped after the initial turnover during the 1950s. Now it’s just not feasible to spend that kind of money on fuel, or to flip the dirt that many times or as deep. No-till, reshaping rows, planting on top — you’re getting a mix of the same items that have been there for a good while,” says Smith.

 

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

 

Smith is driven to get to as much Indian material as possible — before the big machinery does. “Heavy equipment chops Indian artifacts to pieces. It’s a matter of either pick it up now, or just lose it forever. Land forming is great for farming — both yield and production, but it still annihilates Indian sites. Most of the time it takes a concentrated site and scatters it over acres and acres, destroying what it hits — even the stone a lot of the time. So that’s part of what makes me anxious to get as much as possible out of these sites while we can.”

(For more on land forming, see Land forming with a Delta maverick — Robert Precht)

Pot thieves and Ebay

Smith brooks no tolerance for pot thieves and artifact bandits — an incessant threat to Indian history. He relates multiple incidents where a crew from Arkansas was hitting Coahoma County Indian sites at night and making off with major pottery pieces — highly desired in the private market and easily worth thousands of dollars. “The pot hunters didn’t have to hit Ebay with this stuff. This was the kind of material where the thief knows a collector — and it’s gone forever.”

Smith is torn when it comes to Ebay and the private market. “If there was something on Ebay that had real historical value and was from the Delta region — I’d buy it just to bring it home to the Delta. Now, keep in mind, that’s a two-way street. I would absolutely hate to promote the idea of selling pots. That may just generate more theft. But a lot of this auction material comes from estate sales or people who have had the item passed down in their family. If I know a particular item is from this region, then I want it to come home. And then maybe one day I’ll leave it to the library or museum.”

It’s not greed and glory that drive Smith into the furrows hour after hour. It’s a sincere love of Delta history, a hope to preserve a hidden culture, and of course — the primal thrill of the hunt. “Some of the things I’ve found, I can remember exactly where I was standing, no matter how many years it has been. And even now, one little decent piece will charge me for hours. I’m convinced there is another one coming in the next three to four steps. Absolutely convinced.”

 

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

 

Want the latest in ag news delivered daily to your inbox? Subscribe to Delta Farm Press Daily.