If a people are to know their future, they must learn and understand their past. The treasure hunter who helps a people find and know their past performs a service for these early people, their descendants and all mankind. I’ve been interested in hunting for Native American and Civil War mementoes all my life. My dad and my brother have always enjoyed history and searching for treasures from the past, which inspired me to get a degree in history and continue that pursuit.
I met Jeff White of Leeds, Alabama, in the late 1970s. He had studied the history of armies and the Native Americans around his home, and his family enjoyed outdoor adventures and hunting for Native American settlements. His research led him to old Union encampments to discover minie balls, native jewelry, arrowheads and pots.
On October 29, 1978, White, with his wife, daughter and brother, had secured the permission of a landowner to search a field near Talladega, Alabama.
“I knew Indians had traded there because of the broken rum bottles and other debris we’d found on earlier trips, probably left over from the General Andrew Jackson era when he and his army marched near here,” White recalled. Working their way up to a knoll, White discovered three horse bits, stacked one on top of the other, one of them silver-plated, and also a silver spur and hundreds of white and blue beads in long lines. These beads had once been strung together with a thread that had since rotted. Then, 10 to 12 inches down, the group found a copper broach and a flat and thin band of metal that White assumed was made of pewter or tin—but it was silver.
“This silver crown, very thin and pliable and probably worn like a headband, had eight cone-shaped discs made of stamped half dimes, with two of them bearing the dates of 1820 and 1809,” White noted. “The silversmith who made the crown was an artisan of the highest degree.”
A couple of days later, White’s family located a bracelet, beads and two rings made of silver. The Whites felt they had made a major archaeological discovery of historical value to the state of Alabama. The Whites studied and learned about Eufala, a very rich Creek Indian settlement that had been supposedly located in this area. Eufala and the Creek Nation were crushed by General Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812 because the tribe allied itself with the British. In 1832, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, forcing most of the natives out of the east, onto the Trail of Tears and into western reservations.
During this time, however, many Native Americans hid out in woods and caves or bought their freedom from the Army. The owner of the crown White’s family had discovered was probably one of the more wealthy Creeks who remained behind.
The Whites talked with archaeologists at the University of Alabama in Birmingham and notified the Creek Indian Nation. On December 9, 1978, the Whites and members of the local treasure hunters association met with archaeologists to pinpoint other possible graves and artifacts there. These volunteers worked hard for no personal gain, other than for being a part of a historical find. The Creek Nation hadn’t been aware that their ancestors lived this far north in Alabama, and now more details of their heritage were available to them. Some felt the crown might have belonged to a Native American princess or a high-ranking chief.
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In 2013, I met 74-year old Charles Griffin of Shelby County, Alabama, who had been hunting arrowheads and Indian artifacts for 67 years. Like many youngsters with no TV or sports teams to play on, Griffin was fascinated with the stone tools, arrowheads and pottery he found on his family’s 100-acre farm, which his great, great grandfather settled in 1816 after fighting with General Andrew Jackson in the Indian Wars.
“A big spring boiled up out of the ground on our property where I found many beautiful artifacts,” Griffin recalled. “Some of the artifacts I discovered were very old, dating back to the Archaic period [8,000 B.C. to 2,000 B.C.]. I found some artifacts that dated to 1103.”
Griffin also became fascinated with the Paleo-Indian period people who lived from 1,5000 to 7,000 B.C. in small bands of five to seven individuals. More than this number in the clan meant the members couldn’t feed them by hunting or scavenging. Griffin considered them the true American survivors. If they killed an animal, they stayed on the site where they had taken it until they had eaten all they could before moving.
“I located one rock shelter with black soot on the ceiling and the ground was greasy,” Griffin explained. “Nomadic people must have lived there for a while. There I found some atlatls, spear throwers, spear points and stone knives. I also found one Dalton point, perhaps 8,000 years old, that looked like the points made in Tennessee.”
According to Griffin, “Central Alabama today is only about a three- or a four-hour drive in an automobile to the place where this point probably originated. But to get that far on foot, kill animals and feed on those animals probably took several months.”
As archaeologists and artifact hunters discovered these old stone tools and pottery from the earliest American frontiersmen, they named the different styles of stone tools after the locations or people who first identified particular styles of stone implements. “Although my family thought we were the early pioneers, when I picked up Dalton points on our property, I realized people lived there 8,000 years before my family arrived,” Griffin explained.
Modern-day artifact hunters didn’t invent relic hunting. Early people also looked for all types of stone tools after battles, around settlements and at rock shelters. Even if knives and arrow points were damaged, they simply chipped away the damaged part of the stone point and reshaped or refashioned it.
When Griffin first started collecting Native American artifacts, no laws prohibited the collecting, trading and selling of these artifacts. But in 1989, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was enacted. The law dictated that any artifact found on top of the ground should be reburied. Before you start hunting and collecting artifacts, you need to check the state and federal laws relating to finding and collecting these early American tools, pots, spear points and knives.
According to Griffin, “I never mark a spot where I’m hunting artifacts. Newcomers to the sport may want to use a hand-held GPS receiver to identify the spots and note what types of artifacts are found there.”
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“If I’m hunting a new area, I start on the ridges. If I’m hunting a field close to a creek or a river, I look for the highest point in that field near fresh water,” said Charles Griffin. “The early people wanted to be above the flood plain and to be able to see any enemies approaching. I’ll also use topo maps to search for a creek or a river on a property and then a bend in a river where early people would set up camp.”
Many artifact hunters use mytopo.com to get topographical maps they can study to identify likely looking places and also learn property owners’ information.
“I always take one tool with me when hunting artifacts—a flipper, a stick about 3 feet long with a nail in the end of it,” Griffin said. “If I see a piece of flint that looks like it’s been chipped, I’ll use that flipper to turn it over. I’ll only hunt for two or three hours, or perhaps until dark. I have a pack with me as well as snacks and bottled water. ”
Griffin has many pieces that say they’re papered, which means these items have papers of certification and have been declared authentic. When an artifact’s papered, you’ll often learn who has found it, where and when, what type of material it’s made of and how the artifact has been used. The more information a collector has about the object they’ve found the more valuable the piece becomes.
Chipping stones to make cutlery or tools was a refined art form. Each group of people at certain times and in particular regions demonstrated similar forms of making tools. With no instruction books, fathers passed their knapping skills down to their sons. By studying the way stones were knapped by a group of people during a specific time of history, authenticators can spot fakes.
As Griffin reports, “With arrowheads, atlatls, knives and any sharp stone tools, the point of that stone tool doesn’t mean anything. However, the back of the point, called the stem, enables you to tell the time period of its creation. If the tool is fluted, you’ll know it was made during the Paleolithic time, about 40,000 years ago in history. If it has a corner notch on the stem, that point was made during the Archaic period, about 8,000 years ago. The Paleolithic is the favored point. The Archaic is the next favorite point, and the Woodland period points are the most valuable.”
At artifact shows, relic hunters and archaeologists buy, sell and show early-American artifacts. Each state has an archaeological society. Griffin belongs to the Volunteer State Archaeology Society of Tennessee and the Alabama Archaeological Society. Each quarter, these organizations publish a listing of all the show dates in the backs of their respective journals.
New guidelines: artifact hunters can pick up artifacts on their properties and others if they have written permission. You can hunt on public property, but you only can pick up artifacts that are completely uncovered. You can’t dig for artifacts and or hunt on federal lands.
“Many of the artifacts you’ll find at shows now were found or dug up before 1989, when the new federal guidelines were established,” Griffin emphasized. “Check on any state laws or regulations that pertain to collecting early American artifacts.”
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On The Market
Early American artifacts can be bought, sold or traded as long as the show is not held on state or federal property.
“A field-grade arrowhead point and other artifacts may sell for an average from $2 to $5,” Charles Griffin explained. “Paleolithic artifacts can sell for over $150,000. I have a friend who sold one of the best Cumberland points ever found for $150,000. Depending on the condition, a pot sells for $200 to $20,000, atlatl points from several hundred dollars up to thousands of dollars, an adz for $15 up to thousands of dollars and Native American Celts artifacts from $50 into the thousands of dollars. Trade beads are relatively inexpensive unless they’re rare beads.”
Yes, artifacts do have value, however I feel that finding the everyday tools and ornaments of people who lived on the Earth centuries ago helps us understand the cycle of life.
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PIECES OF HISTORY
Videos of Charles Griffin discussing his artifact collection.
Charles Griffin’s personal collection includes pottery, stone tools, art and jewelry, with some items dating back to 12,000 B.C. In his collection is a necklace many warring tribes wore as well as buffalo bones found in west Tennessee where once buffalo lived. Check out the following videos of Griffin talking about and showing off some of his great finds:
This article was originally published in the AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN ™ 2015 issue #174. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.