Treasure Under Our Toes

Our son had his hands full that dreary early spring day a few weeks ago. Mom was working, there was no school, the kids were bickering, and the dogs were being their usual annoying selves, having been cooped up for too long. The walls closed in and nature beckoned. He marshaled the motley group together and deftly herded a pug, a huge chocolate lab and a five and seven year old (who could have used some tethers as well) on foot to the beach.

Racing along the shoreline, the kids collected the usual driftwood and unusual rocks for me. Dad trudged along behind when he spotted what he thought was the black point of a skate egg case protruding from the sand. But as he picked it up, he realized it was a far more exotic treasure. He immediately suspected it was an arrowhead: a perfect triangle with a flange base and obvious edge work on both sides indicating how the point was flaked to be sharp.

He emailed the photo to a Massachusetts archaeologist who texted back that it was a specimen from the Paleo period, thousands of years ago, a volcanic rock brought by glacial movement from the tribes to the north. Not a bad find for a dismal day. But even more interesting is that this 35-year-old had discovered his first arrowhead 29 years earlier when he was but a wee lad of 6 on a church youth group camping in the Grand Tetons. We imagined the last human who had touched it, perhaps thousands of years earlier, would had to have been a Shoshone, Blackfoot, Nez Perce or member of another tribe in the area. We always joked that he spotted it because he, the youngest in the group and smallest, was the closest to the ground.

Then, just two years ago, on Nashawena, one of the Elizabeth Islands off Falmouth, his wife, while almost vertically climbing a muddy cliff with the family, put her hand on a sharp rock, only to discover it was a perfect arrowhead. They matted and framed the find and gave it as a wedding gift to their friend, whose family owns the island and had collected a number of them over the years. They felt that the arrowhead belonged there. Then there were our first neighbors in North Harwich, 30 years ago, who had horses and a corral. Over time, they amassed a sizable collection of clay pipes, spears and arrowheads unearthed in the soft dirt turned over by the horses after storms. If you bring up the subject of Indian relics, most Cape Codders who were raised here have a story or two to share. Another friend, a few years ago, spotted a lovely rose quartz arrowhead just sitting on the rack line at Harding's Beach, and her husband, who also grew up here, collected many while frequenting Bells Neck throughout his childhood.

Bill Moody, a local amateur archaeologist, posts monthly YouTube videos on how he discovers arrowheads in plowed fields and coastal and pond waterways on Cape Cod. Researching these artifacts will not only expand your vocabulary as you differentiate between auriculated and lanceated points, but learn that “silicosis,” a lung condition caused by breathing flint dust while tool making, was the world’s first industrial disease. You will gain familiarity with hafted axes, once bound by sea grass or deer intestines, read how knapping was the grinding and honing of the edges of the stones, and that lithic flake was the process of removing stone flakes by chipping to make tools or weapons. There are stones worked smooth for polishing hides, rough or sharp edged rocks for scraping, and those with small holes through the middle to smooth arrow shafts. Once you know what to look for, a primitive ax head will reveal itself not as a random, interesting stone, but as the amazing tool it was fashioned to be. There are other stones, specifically used to weigh down fishing nets, which appear in many styles and sizes, as well as heavier stones with indentations used as anchors for canoes or rafts.

It is more than mystifying to realize that even as populated as the Cape is today, with the thousands of seasonal visitors who have trod untold numbers of beaches and wooded paths, there are still countless treasures, shot like messages from the past into our future, just waiting to be discovered under our toes. All that remains, for that treasure to be ours, is to look down at something other than an electronic device once in a while, and pay attention.