Dick Cooper - April 2010

 

The Past is Always With Us,
You Just Need to Pick it Up!
by
Dick Cooper

 

As a young man growing up on Tilghman Island 30 years ago, Darrin Lowery says he had but two choices of how to spend his free time. He could ride around the island in a big, supped-up pickup or he could walk the beaches.
He says his decision to walk the beaches fueled a life-long passion and landed him a career as a Smithsonian archaeologist and regional historian. At low tide, he and his father found arrowheads, lance tips and other signs of earlier civilizations along the shore.
“I spent a lot of time on Poplar Island when I was young,” he says as he opens a glass-covered display case that holds a score of Native American and colonial artifacts.
“This pipe was probably smoked by Daniel Cugley or Richard Thompson,” two early colonial settlers of the island, he says, pointing to a piece of clay pipe. “Poplar Island was settled three years before St. Mary’s City in 1631.”
The pipe is one of the “newer” pieces in his museum-quality collection that documents human habitation of the Eastern Shore over the last 13,000 years.
From ancient stone tools and weapons to fossilized shark’s teeth and shards of Indian pottery, the pieces of the past silted out of Talbot County’s sandy soil and found their way into Lowery’s displays.
“These are highly edited versions of objects found at specific sites,” he says referring to the floor-to-ceiling stack of display cases. Each one of the cases holds stories that Lowery brings to life with the excitement of the find.
Lowery, the executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Archaeology Foundation, worked the water to help pay for his University of Delaware degrees, but he managed to feed his fascination with antiquity while working as a mate on a clam dredger.
In a recent paper published in Archaeology of Eastern North America magazine, he documented finding the remains of a Native American burial site in the middle of the Chester River while working on a soft-shell clam dredge in 1988. The dredge pulled up several blades, points and tools as well as a fragment of a human skull.
While Lowery was working his way through college, tow other local collectors were finding other artifacts nearby.
“We’ve found everything from dinosaurs to Coke bottles,” says Norm Haddaway, a hunting and fishing guide from Claiborne.
As he talks, a little blue glass bead rolls around in the palm of his calloused hand. It catches the light coming through the big windows of his home that looks out onto Claiborne Ferry Landing.
The blue bead came from England, almost four centuries ago, Haddaway says. It was one of the trinkets that colonial entrepreneur William Claiborne brought with him to trade with the Indians when he built a fort on Kent Island in 1631. Now it is just one of the many pieces of antiquity that Haddaway and his buddy, Steve Henckel of McDaniel, have found laying about in their Talbot County neighborhoods over the last several decades.
To prove it, Henckel holds out an English coin dated 1592. Another coin that he pulls out of a small plastic bag is a silver Piece of Eight, minted in Mexico in 1634, and then there is the Virginia penny from 1773, and a spearhead from 12,000 B.C.
“We’re just a couple of redneck amateur archaeologists, but we baffle the big boys,” Haddaway says with a gruff laugh.
Haddaway and Henckel, an estate caretaker, have uncovered man-made artifacts that date to the last ice age.
“We just started collecting this stuff and didn’t think much of it, but then it started to get interesting. We loaned some of the collection for display in Jamestown,” Haddaway says. “They were just blown away because our stuff was older than their stuff. This is the real deal.”
Henckel says he began collecting artifacts after he found his first arrowhead when he was about 10 years old.
“I was hooked,” he says. “Now I have milk crates full of things I have found. Between the two of us, we must have 3,000 pieces.”
Some of their findings are arranged in felt-lined cases. Beads in one row, shards of colonial clay pipes with deer and waterfowl designs in another. Buttons and flints and arrowheads catch the bright sunlight streaming in Haddaway’s kitchen.
“I walk the beach at low tide and look for worked stone and color,” Henckel says.
“At low tide after a storm is best.”
Haddaway said that a friend and fellow archaeology enthusiast, John Chamberlain, who had excavated the Kent Fort site and found a quantity of similar beads, identified the Claiborne bead.
He points to several multi-colored glass beads.
“They are from Venice and the Netherlands, made in the late 1500s and early 1600s,” he says. He said Dutch traders had a post on what is now Rich Neck Farm in Claiborne before Englishman Claiborne built his fort.
“It was perfect for them,” he says. “They had high ground, a freshwater spring that still bubbles on the farm, and a deep water port within a few feet of the shoreline,” near the mouth of Tilghman Creek off the Miles River.
Haddaway says that court records found in England by Chamberlain quoted William Claiborne saying he needed a large number of armed men at the fort because the Indians told him they had killed Dutch traders several years before he founded Kent Fort.
Lowery says that reference could have been about an Indian attack on the Dutch at Lewes, De.
Lowery, Haddaway and Henckel have all found Clovis weapon tips in the area. The Clovis people are believed to be early inhabitants of the Americas and are named for Clovis, N.M., where their distinctive stone tools and weapons were found in the early 1930s. Because no Clovis tools or weapons have been found in Alaska or Canada, Haddaway says one theory is that they came from Europe.
The civilization of hunters spread across what is now the continental United States and through Central and South America. It lasted only about 500 to 600 years before it disappeared almost as quickly as it spread.
In one of the felt-lined boxes, Henckel points out two pieces of jagged stone that, to the untrained eye, look like two pieces of jagged stone.
“Those are flints, one is English and the other is French,” he said. “They used to bring them over as solid balls in the ballast of ships and when they got here they would work them in to flints for their flintlock guns.”
Upon examination, you can see that the stones had been worked into a size and shape that could be screwed into a flintlock.
Haddaway says while they have searched fields looking for artifacts he has literally stumbled on some.
“I found this here bottle while I was hunting on Poplar Island,” he says, holding a square bottle with a pinkish hue. “A buddy of mine pushed me out of the way when he was reaching for an Indian axe head. I landed on the ground and saw the neck of this bottle poking out of the ground.”
Holding the bottle to the light and pointing to some etching about the size of thumbprint, he says, “See right there, it is a royal crest.”
Lowery says that one of the reasons so many artifacts have been found is that the Delmarva Peninsula has been continuously occupied for a very long time. He says there would be even more discoveries if it were not for erosion and the rise in water levels. Thirteen thousand years ago, the Chesapeake Bay was a river and the land on Atlantic side of the peninsula extended more than 40 miles out into what is now ocean.
“Fifty percent of the sites are now underwater,” he says. “A lot of the material I have amassed is a by-product of the erosion of the land.”
The Poplar Island of his youth, where he found the detritus of the Cugley and Thompson settlements and arrowheads that were possibly the remains of a Nanticoke raid that killed Thompson’s family in 1634, is an example of a lost historic site. The island eroded away rapidly over the last half-century and is now being rebuilt with dredge spoil from the Chesapeake Bay ship channel.
To the collectors, both professional and amateur, the objects in their cases or on their shelves are more than inanimate objects. As they pick them up, the pieces of worked stone and glass bead become a key to past, a starting place for a story. A chance to hold something hundreds or thousands of years old and wonder aloud what life was like in that distant age.

Dick Cooper, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, and his wife, Pat, live and sail in St. Michaels, Maryland. He can be reached at dickcooper@coopermediaassociates.com.