by Bob Wishoff
My wife of soon-to-be 23 years never quite figured out why it took forty years for her husband to tun into a Boy Scout of sorts--- why it’s so hard to get him to take out the garbage or to clean out the storeroom, but how he’ll, whether it’s 97 degrees or 30 degrees, pack up a backpack filled with tools, bungee up a pick, shovel,and saw and head off to dig holes, usually before sunrise, to dig for eight to ten hours at a time.
I’ve got to come out and admit it up front--- I’m addicted to avocational archaeology, and I dig in the dirt as often as I can--- as often as the smell of fresh air and the good solid earth drives my mind hard into the past, when, tiring of telephones and the modern world, I travel back to a simpler time.
Ever discover something new that you like to do, then find out everybody had already done that? It’s weird, but around here, everyone’s found a point in the road, out on a walk, out in the pasture, that sort of thing. Bring up arrowhead hunting out in the Texas Hill Country to some good ol’ boy, and his eyes will mist nostalgically and he’ll tell you, down to the smallest detail, a story of some incredible find. You know, the “you-shoulda-been-there” kinda story. If you’re lucky, out from a coat pocket will come a piece of the past, already painted with awe and reverence for the unknown life of the artist.
I look for the poetry of that distant moment: Digging to the level of a campfire, heels placed level where feet were thousands of years ago, facing the fire, reaching for the same point now freshly exposed after all of those years--- the intersection of times. I always come home with a better attitude, my patience honed, my senses sharp, my body exercised--- digging has become my yoga and my meditation.
I concentrate. I look for the signs in the dirt that say, “I was here.” I look for the handiwork of one person, either thoughtful and made carefully, or clumsily hewn in the spirit of hunger--- the work of an ordinary person… “I was here. I was here in the crudest of times, and I survived!” Sometimes you just have to put life into context!
I was a surface-only hunter for about a year. I discovered the land around me. I looked down at the ground and found it! I became a kid again, bringing home much more than points. I lugged home bones and sticks, lots of pebbles of interesting shape, quartz, feldspar, fossils of limestone, leaves, pieces of unusual plants and wildflowers. For the first time in years, I looked at the birds and other wildlife. I actually hiked every park within 50 miles. I climbed cliffs and hiked beaches. I rooted through culverts and ditches (and saw more than my share of snakes). I found hundreds of ancient tools and arrowheads. In the quiet contemplation of the ground, there were plenty of messages to be found.
One of my first perfect finds was a Bulverde point made of a fine caramel-colored flint. It was 2-1/2 inches long and thousands of years old. I found it one dry summer. The lack of rain had culled back the cedars and brush so that a person, bent over, could hike--- the day before I found what I call a “pebble waterfall”, a pocket of stones, spread about, that had collected from years of drainage pattern, slowly rolled together over years into a pattern resembling a mosaic waterfall. It’s a lot like stumbling into a free rock shop, one where you buy pretty rocks by the pound. I’ll usually return to such a site and hike out a hundred pounds or so for my garden at home. Under the cedar trees are fine bone specimens such as deer and other skulls of small animals.
I had just found a fine spot near the waterfall--- shiny teeth of chopper tools and small chips of flint under some trees. It was dead still and blast furnace hot, near a hundred degrees, and I was covered in sweat. Suddenly, there was the snort of a large buck in front of me. I looked up to see that I’d disturbed the sleeping buck. He jumped to his feet and sped off into the thick cedars. There, by the dark oval where he’d lain, was a perfect point. From then on out, each time I held that point, I’d hear the snort of that buck. I’d think of the maker of the point raising his atlatl, leather strap held tight around his wrist. I see the blur of his arm leap forward, the dart with point firmly attached, flung with the shaft, missing the buck, landing on the spot I found it. Could the spirit of that buck have led me to that point? I’ve had lots of animal moments. Once, a hawk flew at me as I picked up a point off a dirt road, leaving me a feather as it pulled away from me.
The more I hiked, the more I realized the true extent of “progress”. I’m not deaf to the entreaties of archaeologists. They’re right. An enormous amount of ancient campsites are being destroyed. I’d stop by a housing complex under the dozer, and I’d find points in the rubble created by the big machines, and I found I agreed with the professionals. Let’s face it, people will always want to live in the same places--- fight for the same prime real estate. Their old campsites will soon be our new houses. In the spirit of curiosity, I’d approach the pros and ask for their advice. I was generally met with a strangely forked response: “Don’t touch a thing. We all became interested the same way as you.” Ask them what they are doing to preserve the information lost, to preserve the sites? The answer is frequently that sites, even at the water’s edge, are left alone “for future methods of excavation to evolve.” Recent loopholes in public sale land contracts have ceded artifact rights generally reserved for the State (at least here in Texas) to the new landowners.
The more I looked, the more I found underfunding of riverfront preservation and confusion as to the State’s rights on private property. The more I looked, the more sites I found being sold by both the public and State to developments. I began to look at digging for artifacts differently. I began to see that it’s up to all of us interested in American history to dig where we see destruction; that we must share with our children the story of places, to take them into a hole and show them the record of time that lives there. Many sites I dig with bulldozers at my back.
I believe that everyone has the right to practice the science of archaeology--- that in the modern world Salvage Archaeology is a rising area of study. I yearn for a State that will train and certify avocational archaeologists to act as a way to urge developers to allow digging up of “doomed” sites as educational projects for the community. Increase the audience of fact-gatherers. Allow the public to appreciate the past through this type of experience and they will properly discern the importance of protecting important sites for posterity and allow for sensible development.
Until then, you might just see me
and my pals, heading across some scarred field in the pre-dawn hours, sneaking
past some dozers (Just don’t let us see you, son.) armed with our
picks and tools and water-filled backpacks. We’ll be looking for the past.
We’ll be the folks who let you touch history. We’ll be the ones visiting
your schools, teaching your kids that once… once people lived with far
less to work with… Can you hear the sound of chipping, and the thoughts
of survival amongst the flies and the skeeters and the smell of sweat…
Once only survival mattered.
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