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The arrow of time

Father and son ply fields for Native American artifacts

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The artifact in a Bureau County farm field hadn’t been touched by human hands for about 9,000 years,

It looked like what we call an arrowhead, yet it predates the use of bows and arrows in North America by about 6,000 years and was more likely used on a spear.

This unbroken LeCroy-style point was the best find of the day, said Scott Carruthers of Peru and his father, Gary Carruthers of Ladd.

It was their first visit to this farm field. The cropland was plowed last fall and fairly clean of debris. Months of weather should have exposed some artifacts. On the last Saturday in March, after getting permission, father and son parked in a field road, grabbed their searching sticks and started walking, eyes to the ground.

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Gary Carruthers of Ladd (left) and Scott Carruthers of Peru take a closer look at the arrowhead Gary found on the last day of March in a Bureau County crop field. The father and son have amassed many good finds of Native American artifacts by walking far, fields in northern Illinois.

The targets

Scott and Gary Carruthers were searching for stone fragments with chipped and flaked edges. Native Americans in northern Illinois made many arrowheads from a white or light-gray chert, making them stand out against the dark soil.

“It’s easier than you think, if you’re in the right spot,” Scott Carruthers said.

With decades of experience, the two men began picking up stone flakes and fragments, using their searching sticks to check small pieces to save time and back muscles. They tried to avoid other things posing as arrowheads, such as leaves matted to the ground.

They found parts of arrowheads and paper-thin flakes of flint. Could the fragments be accidents of nature? Not likely. Arrowhead hunters know that rocks do not naturally break into flakes. These were the work of Native Americans, using a skill known as flint knapping.

Not all arrowheads are arrowheads

Prehistoric stone points were hafted to wooden shafts and launched at targets. Known as projectile points, these are the most common Native American artifacts found today. The Illinois State Museum estimates more than a million have been found in Illinois.

When humans first occupied North America 13,000 to 14,000 years ago, they made spear points. In La Salle County, Gary Carruthers once found a Clovis point, one of the earliest known arrowheads in North America and prized by hunters and collectors.

When the Paleo period ended and the archaic period began 10,000 years ago, the last glacier had receded from Illinois and native people began launching spears using an atlatl, a wooden throwing stick that greatly accelerated a projectile.

The archaic period ended 3,000 years ago and was followed by the Woodland and Mississippian periods, prior to European settlement. The bow and arrow was first used by North American Indians only about 2,500 years ago.

Arrow points were attached to thin wooden shafts and launched with bows and are the smallest and most recent stone projectile. Often called “bird points,” arrow points were used to kill many animals.

Most other arrowheads were actually made for darts and spears.

“When everybody thinks of an arrowhead, they think of a spear point,” Scott Carruthers said. “Well, there were knives, there were darts, there were spear points, but used for many different things. It’s not only just an arrowhead.”

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This framed collection of projectile points were found in La Salle and Bureau counties by Scott Carruthers and his father, Gary Carruthers.

Chert and flint

The rock used to make points is called chert or flint, Scott Carruthers said. Native Americans traveled far and wide to find and trade suitable chert and flint. Known sources of chert and flint often lend geographical names to projectile points.

Scott Carruthers referred to the LeCroy point as a “Starved Rock LeCroy” because it was made of Starved Rock chert. Other arrowheads found that day included two broken Fox Valley points, one made of Avon chert and another made of heat-treated Platteville-Galena chert, Carruthers said.

Native Americans heat-treated chert and flint to make it easier to work, and this often changed the color of the stone. The heat-treated Fox Valley partial was reddish. Stone points also could have undergone unintentional heat-treating when prairie fires swept the Midwest, Scott Carruthers said.

Not all fields are equal

Walking any cleared Illinois farm field might yield something. But the landscape, erosion and Native people’s preferences make some locations better than others.

“You can’t just get out and walk a field,” Scott Carruthers said. “You typically want to be around water. You want to be above the water, maybe on a bluff. I tell people that the worst thing you get is exercise,”

He and his father once found a remnant glacial lake in Bureau County and hunted the adjacent field.

“Out of one field we found over 1,000 artifacts,” Scott Carruthers said.

The lake provided water to Native Americans and attracted animals for them to hunt, Carruthers said.

“They used these places for thousands of years,” he said. “You’ll find pieces that are 10 to 12 thousand years old all the way up to a thousand years ago. It’s a big span.”

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This LeCroy point found in a Bureau County farm field is made of Starved Rock chert, dating to 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. These points were used on spears and darts and are found from Illinois to the east coast, according to the Illinois State Museum.

Four generations

Scott Carruthers, 47, has been searching for arrowheads since he was in kindergarten and growing up in Ladd. His grandfather was an avid arrowhead hunter, he said.

“Actually my grandfather’s father had a few arrowheads so I’m pretty much the fourth generation into arrowhead hunting,” he said.

The hobby has pulled him deeper into the history of the Midwest’s original residents.

“The history about the artifacts is interesting, when you dive into it and you break it down, the ages of things, the different tools and what they were used for,” he said.

Moving uphill

After an hour in one field, Scott and Gary Carruthers moved across a road and uphill. High points were favored by native people, and tend to be more eroded. The move proved fruitful.

More flakes started showing up. A partial side-notched arrowhead was found. Gary found a tiny arrow point. More fragments showed up. Scott found a partial point with boldly serrated edges.

“It’s a broken Fox Valley made out of heat-treated Galena. I wish it was whole. That would have been a killer,” he said.

The LeCroy-style point was cause for celebration. Photos were taken of the artifact as found in the ground, or in situ, as Scott Carruthers said. A few minutes later, another Fox Valley fragment turned up.

“It’s missing the tip and a little bit of the base but I tell you what, that’s a darned good find,” Scott Carruthers said.

Jeff Dankert can be reached at (815) 220-6977 or lasallereporter@newstrib.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_LaSalle.

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General assignment reporter assigned to city of La Salle and La Salle high school and elementary school districts. He can be reached at (815) 220-6977 or lasallereporter@newstrib.com.

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