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Finding History


Parker Graham feels connected to a different time when he finds an arrowhead. It is a connection to a different culture, a symbol of the history of a people who lived on the same land he now occupies, hundreds, even thousands of years earlier. 

“I’ve always been a fisherman and a surfer, and I picked up bow-hunting as well. I started realizing there was an entire culture here doing the same things thousands of years ago,” he said. “It was kind of a light-bulb moment. (These arrowheads) are kind of like a note card from a different time period of the area you’re looking in.”

Graham, 33, who works as a commercial scalloper, has hundreds of arrowheads, and he remembers where he found each one. It’s more than a hobby, for him, it’s a spiritual exploration. And there is a level of patience that he said is paramount to his success.

“I can walk the beach for an entire tide cycle (six hours) and it’s my church,” he said. “And when I’m doing it, I’m just so hyper-focused. There were times when I was going to beaches so often, I was recognizing rocks that had fooled me before, that weren’t even arrowheads.”

When he goes searching for arrowheads, it’s about the journey. If he spends hours walking through areas of the island and comes up empty handed, he’s fine with that.

“Everyone asks me how I do it, but how do I explain it any more than I walk? Everyone looks for arrowheads the same way. By walking and looking,” Graham said. “I had so much fun searching and exploring for myself. You can’t go out on Nantucket and not find something beautiful every single time.”

Graham doesn’t have any secret spots. He can sometimes go weeks or longer, searching almost daily, without finding arrowheads. The ace up his sleeve is the experience he has built up over the years.

“I don’t know of any spots that other people don’t know about,” he said. “I have the benefit of having walked the beaches a lot so I know what kind of weather patterns make certain sections of beach more advantageous.”

Henry Holt, a long-time seasonal resident, worked for 11 years as a contract archeology field director and received his undergraduate degree in archeology. It was arrowhead hunting on Nantucket that first spurred his love of archeology. He shares the same connection that Graham feels.

“I was 9 or 10 years old and I was hiding next to the Ballingers’ house out at the end of Morey Lane, and found an arrowhead right there,” he said. “That’s what started this spark, it was this tangible connection to something so old. And then, as soon as someone taught me how to do it, then I was out almost every day, it was my favorite pastime.”

Although some archeologists have spoken out against arrowhead collecting and hunting, Holt said he sees nothing wrong with amateur arrowhead collecting, as long as it’s done properly.

“I disagree with the approach that says, you know, this is flat out unethical and you shouldn't do it,” he said.

People shouldn't dig for arrowheads, he said, but the ones found in the open have probably already been moved and disturbed by the natural forces of nature, and hold little archeological value by remaining in place.

“What I feel very strongly about is that the real data is underground, and that’s the data that hasn’t been disturbed by house construction,” he said. “Every time I see a house built on the harbor, without any archeology, it makes me shed a tear. Because the data being lost there is really important, some of the most important data on the island.”

Holt said that arrowhead collecting has probably been happening on Nantucket since the 18th century, and the island has been picked over significantly.

“There have been thousands and thousands and thousands of arrowheads picked up and there are very few left,” he said. “The thing to do is say to a collector, ‘you’ve got some pretty good data there and it’d be fun to work together to preserve the data that you’ve collected and record the sites you’ve found and learn more about Nantucket prehistory,’ rather than just saying, ‘oh that’s unethical’.”

When most laymen think of arrowheads, they imagine a sharpened stone at the end of a spear or arrow. But Graham said that the arrowheads he finds on Nantucket have a much wider set of uses, something Holt corroborates. There are points for skinning animals, others for opening shellfish, and their purpose can be determined by their shapes and characteristics.

“When you go home and open your utensil drawer, that’s what this is,” Graham said. “For (Native Americans) these tools were invaluable. This was their life. You cannot realistically break a deer down with your bare hands. Try to open a clam with your fingers. You can smash it but then you’re eating a bunch of clam shell. There’s an intention behind every worked stone that you find.”

The best indication of what a point was used for is the base, or the bottom of the arrowhead, he said. It’s the part that would attach to an antler for a spear, or a stick for a spear.

“The edgework, the shape and the base, those are the characteristics I use to discern (what the arrowhead was used for),” he said.

Although Graham said his imagination may play a part in some of the conclusions he comes to, there is also science behind it. Not only has he spent hours researching the subject, he has recently begun flint-knapping himself, which is the modern-day term for shaping stone to make tools through working and striking. That has helped him immensely in identifying fracture patterns.

The reason these relics of the past are so prevalent here, Graham believes, is because of the abundance of Native Americans who once inhabited the island and who had access to a wealth of resources from the sea.

“The occupation was so dense out here for such a long time,” he said. “I think the best way to look at it is that Nantucket has always provided for people. Through archeological studies, historians found that the natives on Nantucket were substantially healthier, they lived longer and had better diets (than their neighbors).”

Often, the very same areas that people are settling today were the same areas on the island that were ideal for Native Americans as well, Holt said.

“Prominence, proximity to water, well-drained soil,” he said. “On Nantucket there is a focus on sandy loam, which is the kind of soil that you find golf courses and farms on, and that was also suitable for horticulture.”

Native Americans lived on the land known as Nantucket for over 10,000 years before the first European settlers arrived in the mid 1600s. According to local historian Fran Karttunen, people known as Paleo-Indians left distinct spear points known as Clovis points all over New England, some dating as far back as 12,000 years ago.

Following the time of the Paleo-Indians, the Archaic period followed in this area and began about 6,000 years ago. Then came the Woodland period, and Karttunen said the changes of each period are reflected in the stone and pottery remnants that have been found in recent times.

“There is plenty of evidence in the form of stone tools and middens (where trash was discarded) of people living on the islands during the Woodland period after the islands formed, but stone implements have also been found from earlier times when Tuckernuck and the other places were still part of the mainland,” she said. “I suspect that people came and went, and that some winters were too severe for anyone to survive in the kind of shelters they could build for wintering over here.”

The Woodland period is the best known to historians because it lasted up until the 16th and 17th centuries when European contact was made. In the 1600s the islands were occupied by a year-round population known as the Wampanoags (“people of the dawn”). Although numbers vary it is estimated that 1,500 to 2,500 Wampanoags were living on the island when Europeans first made contact.

Holt said that jasper artifacts found on the island suggest the presence of long-distance trade, given that the closest place that gemstone can be found is in Virginia or Pennsylvania.

Like many islanders, Graham can remember finding arrowheads as a child, lasting remnants of the Native Americans who lived here, and sharing in the excitement of these small discoveries with his parents.

“We lived out by the Miacomet Golf Course, and my mom would go running out at those dirt roads and she would find a lot of quartz, most of the time broken, but definitely worked stone. Sometimes a point or a base or something and I would always be super-excited,” he said.

But it was during a cultural immersion trip after high school to South and Central America that his love for Native American culture and arrowheads was fully invigorated.

“Every day we were going to different archeological sites and ruins, and I just got real into it. After my trip I was buzzing and I got really into exploring Nantucket,” he said.

Once he returned to Nantucket, he wanted not just to find arrowheads, but to find out who made them and for what purpose, scouring the Atheneum and the Internet for all the information he could digest.

“Once I started finding points, I wanted to start figuring out what these points meant and what they did,” he said. “A lot of what historians have done is to bridge point types through time periods and different cultures.”