Ramblin' Man: Discovering Native American Artifacts in the Uwharrie Mountains
photograph by Jon Eckard

This wasn’t always a cornfield. That’s the tricky part. You can’t look at the land as it appears in the present. You have to imagine it as it might have been a thousand years ago, or 10,000. You have to think of the land without the farm fields, without the barns, without the roads. Think of the land as long-vanished peoples would have experienced it. That’s the best way to find arrowheads.

In the middle of the field there’s a gentle rise, and I slow my steps. Before the forests were cleared, this would have been a wooded knoll, a piece of high ground along the Upper Little River of Harnett County. Down on the river, where striped bass and shad once thronged, the woods would have been wet, the air steamy. Too many bugs. No breeze. Too hot for a decent night’s sleep. Who would want to camp there? The Indians would have searched for higher ground. They would have moved to a nearby wooded knoll. They might have camped here.

And that’s where I find the first flake of worked stone, where the rise in the cornfield flattens on top. It’s not a real arrowhead, just a marble-size flake chipped off a larger stone. But the worked edges get my heart thumping. I scan the furrows, bare and worn in midwinter, freshly washed by a recent rain. One day long ago, a man sat down with a rock in one hand and a stone or antler striker in the other, and chipped this flake from a piece of quartz. I slow down. There’s no rush. In more ways than one, finding arrowheads is a matter of time.

Ramblin' Man: Discovering Native American Artifacts in the Uwharrie Mountains

Ron Harris, a longtime member of the Piedmont Archaeology Society of North Carolina, holds several Hardaway corner-notched and Hardaway Dalton points from his extensive collection. photograph by Jon Eckard

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The very first Indian artifact I ever saw was a massive gray hammerstone my grandmother found when she was a little girl. She kept it in a glass-front china closet with the good stuff, a smooth, sooty rock wedged between silver serving trays and her collection of two-handled bouillon cups. Perhaps it was the contrast between the delicate pearlescent china and the primal lines of that ancient tool, or the fact that the artifact was so meaningful to her that it warranted display with family heirlooms, but I remember that old rock in the china closet. I’d look for it each time we visited. I’d pick it up, my thumb and forefinger sliding naturally into the grooves carved in the stone. I could imagine it chipping an arrowhead or smashing the bones of ground sloths. I’ve been fascinated by arrowheads and hammerstones and hide scrapers ever since. (Today, my grandmother’s beloved hammerstone is proudly displayed behind glass, in our dining room, wedged among wedding-gift crystal, silver, and other artifacts from an era long past: faded construction-paper flowers that our kids made in Sunday school.)

To say that North Carolina is rich in Native American artifacts is an understatement. Indians have been hunting, camping, building, planting — living — along the region’s rivers and streams and in its forests since the last ice sheets retreated some 12,000 years ago. It’s unlikely, over all that time, that there’s a single creek in the state where a hunter didn’t stalk ducks, or send a spear or arrow hurtling toward a bird or rabbit or bear. Still, at times, finding an arrowhead or hide scraper seems to be a lucky break. I once sat down on the shores of Jordan Lake to fish a water bottle out of my daypack, looked down, and found a perfectly formed pink quartz arrowhead on the ground between my boots.

To say that North Carolina is rich in Native American artifacts is an understatement.

But some places are known for their richness of artifacts. A few years ago, I had the chance to visit the Hardaway Site, one of North Carolina’s greatest archaeological repositories. Located in the Uwharrie Mountains, close enough to Badin Lake that I could hear the water lapping on the shore, the Hardaway Site once served as a sort of weapons factory. Over the course of at least 10,000 years, Indians trekked to this wooded ridge to manufacture spear points, arrowheads, stone drills, serrated knives, and hammerstones like the one my grandmother found. Archaeologists excavating at the Hardaway Site pulled up some test plots that held more artifacts than soil.

That’s hardly the case in this old field. I walk between the furrows, bare and crusty, my hands tingling in the wind’s bite. There’s no better time than winter to find arrowheads in a field. Months ago, the last pass of a farmer’s plow turned up another layer of time. Winter rains and winds have pulled back a few centuries of cover, winnowing soil from the fields until the bones of ancient cultures lie naked on the ground.

I find more flakes and chips, what I think might be part of a hide scraper, and the rear two-thirds of a dark-gray spear point, a tool that might have been lashed to the business end of an atlatl dart. I muse over a few shards of china, figuring they once might have adorned some sharecropper’s kitchen the way my grandmother showed off her silver service. And there are plenty of small bits of plastic and metal, their original provenance impossible to decipher. I’m struck with a bit of sadness that an artifact hunter a few centuries from today might still be able to find such trash, and I wonder what such detritus would say about my own generation.

I’m almost across the field when something catches my eye, in the next furrow over. Atop an inch-tall pedestal of sand, like a seashell on the beach in the wake of a strong storm, a perfectly shaped white quartzite projectile point glints like a tiny beacon. I half-stumble in my rush to snatch it up, as if someone else might get there first. I’m not an avid arrowhead hunter, so I haven’t found very many projectiles that haven’t been broken by a harrow or gouged by a plow. This is my best find ever.

The point is in near-mint condition. I can easily make out the notches where leather strips would have affixed it to a wooden shaft. The edges are serrated, and slightly concave. I can see the tiny clam-shaped depressions where miniscule flakes of stone were chipped from the edge. I run my thumb along the edge. The blade is still wicked sharp.

Later, at home, I’ll pull out my reference books and figure the stone point for a Kirk Corner Notch. If I’m right, that point would have been attached to a spear or atlatl dart. Some long-gone hunter sharpened it when the last of the mastodons still roamed the river bluffs of today’s Harnett County. It would be perhaps 10,000 years old, made centuries before the invention of the bow and arrow.

Of course, I’m no expert. I’m just a guy who keeps his eyes open whenever he crosses a farm field on the way to a deer stand, or walks the dog along a creek. At the time, headed back to the truck, I’m really not sure what’s in my pocket, jabbing my thighs with sharp points and edges, other than a pocketful of gifts left by the ancients, and unwrapped by time.

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Nickens is editor-at-large of Field & Stream and the author of The Total Outdoorsman Manual. His articles also appear in Smithsonian and Audubon magazines.