Earlier this month, Julie and I took a 15-mile e-bike journey across the Sonoran Desert north of Phoenix. Our guide knew the area well. He informed us that broken pottery littered the area. The Hohokom people who lived here for thousands of years believed shattering old pots would release the spirit of the departed artists who made them. While we searched for shards, our guide cautioned us to keep our eyes open for rattlesnakes, Sonoran toads, and spiny lizards. A pack of coyotes shadowed us for much of the journey, yipping to each other as they slinked just out of sight behind the brittle bush and ironwood trees.
A light rain dampened our little trek, but quickly blew east in time to catch the last rays of the setting sun and give us this little arc of a rainbow on the distant horizon. A line from H. R. Wakefield’s “He Cometh and He Passeth By” echoed in memory:
“Arizona is a moon-dim region, very lovely in its way, and stark and old, an ancient, lonely land. One is brought up against the vast enigmas of time and space and eternity.”
It’s a steamy July in the summer I turn eleven. The hot sun is beating down on a broad field of sandy soil, where I tramp down a quarter-mile-long row of green tobacco plants, cutting off the secondary stems from each plant so the main leaves can grow.
There’s a cold watermelon waiting for the field workers at the end of the row. I plod toward it and continue to lop off the suckers, as we call the unwanted stems.
Then I see it, a thin, wedge-shaped piece of blue flint. An arrowhead. When I pick it up and wipe away the dried dirt, I can’t help but gaze in wonder at the craftsmanship, or to imagine its story. Who made it? Who used it?
Being the bookish sort, the relic means much more to me than just a neat-looking curiosity. At the first opportunity, I locate books on Indian artifacts at the High Point Public Library.
Many people think the Indian artifacts they stumble upon in farms, gardens, and construction sites are a few hundred years old. In fact, the Palmer point I found was over 8,000 years old, a testament to the enduring legacy of the first North American inhabitants.
Over the years, I continued to search for relics and accumulated a sizable collection. What began as an escape from drudgery turned into a lifetime hobby that not only taught me a lot of history, but also introduced me to primitive weapons. More important, it gave me an appreciation for both Native American culture and fine craftsmanship.
For example, the grooved ax in the first image was a formidable weapon and vital tool. The disc scraper shown immediately above required a great deal of pressure flaking from a skilled hand. The Kirk Serrated point beside it may have functioned as a saw. Running my finger over its barbs, I can’t help but appreciate its usefulness and beauty. It reveals the patient work of an experienced artisan, a product of a long tradition of craftsmanship.
Lesson learned: Every landscape conceals hidden wonders, not to mention forgotten stories waiting to be discovered.
My wife and I just got back from visiting our daughter and son-in-law at Scott Air Force base. One of our stops was the Cahokia Indian Mound near Saint Louis, Missouri, the site of the largest Native American city north of Mexico.
Beginning around 900 AD, the Cahokians, a Mississippian people related to the Sioux, broke the ground with stone hoes and transported dirt by basket to construct the central mound, which became the heart of an urban center of up to 40,000. The chief and a handful of priests lived on the mound, and the city grew around them.
The mound is higher than you think, as you can see from this view from the top. Just over the first stand of trees in the foreground is a burial mound. Past that you can see wooden posts from the Cahokia Woodhenge. Downtown Saint Louis lies on the horizon.
Here’s a closer view of the Cahokia Woodhenge. Like Stonehenge in England, it served as a calendar that marked solstices and equinoxes. A priest standing on a platform in the middle of Woodhenge’s five circles of cedar posts would perform a ceremony called “Greeting the Sun,” during which he would observe and announce significant astronomical events. The posts standing in the site today were authentically recreated in 1985 using stone tools similar to the ones displayed in the nearby Cahokia museum:
Gazing down on the Cahokia Woodhenge from the great mound, I imagined the excitement and sense of mystery the people felt on the completion of a multi-generational work that connected them to their past, the land on which they depended, and the celestial powers that guided their lives.
My interest in primitive weapons — essential lore for any sci-fi/fantasy writer — began when I first found arrowheads in the freshly plowed fields on the tobacco farm where I grew up. From my first encounter with them, these amazing artifacts exerted a hypnotic fascination over me. After all, they were survivors from a past unimaginably different from my own world. They were weapons that were essential for survival, and at the same time, beautiful works of art.
Bookish kid that I was, I absorbed every field guide to North American archaeology the High Point Library had. Here are some of the things I’ve learned over the years:
1. They’re not all “arrowheads.”
Although we tend to associate American Indians with the bow and arrow, they didn’t develop that weapon until about 500 AD. In fact, “arrowheads” or, as archaeologists prefer, “projectile points,” tend to be quite small. And a hickory bow couldn’t generate the potential energy required to kill a bear or cougar — much less a mastodon.
Larger game required a powerful weapon, and the atlatl fits the bill. North Carolina’s Sissipahaws, Catawbas, and Tuscaroras mastered this ingenious and tricky weapon. I’ve made and used atlatls, and believe me, they have a long learning curve — harder to learn, in my opinion, than the sling. They’re easy to throw but require many weeks of practice to learn to aim properly.
Think of it as a custom-made lever for throwing darts. The power of an atlatl must be witnessed to be believed.
Larger points were generally used as spear points and knives, which were fitted with wooden handles, as I’ve demonstrated below. A flint knife with a good edge makes a very effective means of cutting and skinning. (You can click any image to enlarge it.)
2. They’re older than you think
The Clovis point, as illustrated in the first photo above, dates to between 10-15,000 years ago. It was introduced into North America with the migration of the Clovis people who continued down into South America.
3. Distinctive styles emerged over time
As the migration of Siberian peoples continued in the Americas, local cultures arose, which produced their own unique weapons. Over time, projectile point styles changed.
When I visited the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, my favorite display was an arrangement of flawless points sorted by time period. Clovis points came first, followed by styles that resembled those that immediately evolved from the Clovis in North Carolina, which in turn were followed by styles distinctly different from anything I’d ever seen. So once you’ve identified a point’s style, you know its approximate age.
4. There’s purpose in their beauty
Just as the SR-71 sports a design determined by its purpose, so do projectile points. Check out this Guilford rounded base point from my collection:
This seemingly delicate creation was meticulously formed using pressure flaking, a slow process of sharpening the edge by pressing it with a pointed instrument, as opposed to striking the point. Its perfect proportions ensure a smooth, accurate flight.
5. Growing reliance on European technology tainted the quality of projectile points
Hatchets and projectile points made from metal, and of course, flintlocks, gradually replaced traditional Indian weapons. Take a look at these Randolph points I found, which date back to the early 1700s:
Not quite as elegant as their ancestors, are they?
American Indian weapons have popped up in some of my works, including Gooseberry and Aztec Midnight. There’s a raw, elemental allure to primitive weapons that’s inspired many works of fantasy fiction. Learning about them connects us to a past that deserves to be remembered.