April 15, 2006, started off as an ordinary spring day for Shannon and Amy McCrary of Pattonsburg — but it would quickly take an extraordinary turn as they discovered on a farm-ground hilltop some of the most spectacular blades ever created by Native Americans.
The McCrarys were mushroom hunting.
“We weren’t having any luck finding mushrooms so we switched over to looking for rocks,” said Shannon. “We knew there were some flint pieces scattered around and a campsite in the area.”
They concentrated their search on a hilltop where land had been cleared to build fence and seed with grass for pasture.
Their first clue to a lifetime discovery was made when Amy picked up a polished white blade measuring over five inches long, and then, moments later, another blade, equally huge.
“We found two points on that day,” said Shannon. “The first piece was not broken. The second piece was broken pretty badly.”
When they got home, they tried to find a match for the blades in their guidebooks. But they couldn’t identify them by the points. The blades were too large.
Certain there were more blades to be found on the hilltop, the McCrarys called Kenny Mort for advice. They knew Mr. Mort to be an avid collector of Indian artifacts in Daviess County. Kenny told them to make sure they documented their find, took pictures, and to notify a professional archeologist at a college or university.
The McCrarys contacted a university professor who told them they should have the area looked at to make sure it was not a burial ground. Disturbing burial sites, even ancient Indian burial mounds, is illegal in Missouri. The McCrarys had the site examined and it was determined that no bones or teeth were located there. That cleared the way for further excavation.
They returned to the site with hand trowels, tin foil and zip lock bags. They created a grid map to record every piece they picked up.
“We were pretty particular,” said Shannon. “We took exact measurements in case there would be future research.”
They dug in the same spot as before and found five more blades. All of the blades had been broken and placed into a pit. The hole measured about 25 inches around and was eight to 12 inches deep. All the broken pieces could easily be fitted together.
Before this discovery, the McCrarys had found small points, a small axe, some celts — or un-grooved axes, and some scattered chert — a common rock type consisting mostly of quartz crystals.
They were fully aware of the significance of their new discovery.
“Most hunters never find a cache. To find a cache is like striking gold,” said Shannon.
Many of the buried blades had been deliberately broken and buried — what archeologist call “killed”. The Indians of old had not used these blades to hunt elk or scrape hide or clean fish.
“They weren’t used for anything,” said Shannon. “The blades were strictly made and killed for a ceremonial purpose.”
And what was the purpose of the ceremony? Nobody knows for sure. But it is certain the blades had some type of symbolic power and were buried as part of a ritual. Perhaps it was an offering to the gods.
“It’s kind of a mystery,” Shannon said. “There are lots of theories. The blades were fantastic in color. They were beautiful. To go to that much trouble to knap them, only to break them and bury them, something significant had to have happened.”
Amy and Shannon found a total of 56 blades. About 43 of the blades were called Ouachita. These were the larger blades and the name derives from an Oklahoma Indian tribe. There were four large unidentified blades with too many pieces lost for identification. There were also 13 unnamed blades.
“The 13 unnamed blades are significant in the artifact world,” said Shannon. “All blades have a name. It’s possible these blades will have our name put on them. That would be fantastic. We could call them ‘The McCrary Cache of Daviess County’ or whatever we wanted.”
The blades varied from five to nine inches in length. The killed blades were made of Burlington chert, which is not native to the area, but found in eastern Missouri, around the Jefferson City/St. Louis area.
Knapping is a technique for making stone tools and weapons by striking flakes from a core with a hard stone. Since no chips or flakes were found in the area, it is believed the blades were knapped somewhere else and brought there by the people.
Some of the blades had heat-treated faces. Heat treating makes chert easier to flake. The edges were often ground and polished.
For the next five months into August, Amy and Shannon would dig in their spare time. They eventually discovered 12 caches or pits.
Ten of the pits were killed. Two of the pits were established at a later time. But all of the artifacts dated from around the same time, plus or minus 50 years.
“In one of the caches we found what appeared to be a grass sack or a basket,” said Shannon. “Maybe they put the blades in the basket before they buried them.”
It is believed the 10 killed caches represent the Hopewell Culture. This is a culture well established to the south in the Kansas City area with over 30 registered sites.
“They would have been old, old; our idea of cavemen,” said Shannon. “The men averaged about five feet tall and lived to be around the age of 30. They had a hard life in a rough climate and amongst predators. If they saw a tornado or felt an earthquake for the first time, it would have been reason enough for a ceremony.”
All 12 of the caches were found on a center hilltop. The caches were from five to 35 feet apart.
“That one hilltop is a natural knoll,” said Shannon. “This is unusual because the Hopewell Indians built their own mound to bury their ceremonial pieces. Maybe they just liked the location. It was alongside a bend in the Grand River at the time. It would have been a beautiful spot 3,000 years ago. The ceremonial mound would have been located away from the main camp. The ceremonial area was off-limits.”
The center hilltop was surrounded by eight more natural knolls that stretched about three-quarters of a mile. These small hilltops faced south toward an old Grand River bed.
On two of the adjacent knoll tops, the McCrarys found a full groove axe, and three different types of arrowheads (Hardin, Goddard and Steuben point). These were all found on the surface.
It was another exciting moment for the McCrarys when they discovered a fire pit on the same center hilltop. The fire pit was eight to 14 inches deep and three feet in diameter. It contained charcoal and red ochre.
Early on in their dig, the McCrarys met David A. Easterla, who studied at the University of Missouri and later received his doctorate a Purdue University. He worked for the National Park Service for 15 summers. He retired from a 51-year career of teaching and is an Emeritus Distinguished University professor. As a researcher, Dr. Easterla believes publication is one of the best ways to advance archeology.
Dr. Easterla visited the McCrary site many times. He sent samples off to carbon date the fire pit and to determine the origin of the points and chert. The age of chert is determined by examining the patina. Patina is a thin layer on the surface of stone that builds over time.
The charcoal carbon dated 3,041 years before present day. This was the Late Archaic period.
It took 11 years for the McCrarys to finish their research. They have turned their whole find over to Dr. Easterla who displays it in his collection.
His collection is among the Who’s Who in Indian Relics by Steven R. Cooper, which has been placed in the Daviess County Library as a memorial book by Kenny and Kraig Mort.
“A very special thanks to the Mort family, Kenny, Katherine and Kraig Mort,” said Shannon and Amy.
Dr. Easterla believed that the McCrarys’ find is one of the more profound flint finds ever made in the state of Missouri.
“The author seemed pretty excited to have our caches in his book,” said Shannon.
Shannon now makes presentations on his artifacts to school and clubs.
“Ultimately, the goal was to record the find for future reference, to make sure history was properly noted,” he said. “If someone finds similar artifacts they’ll have a reference to do a comparison. And somebody, someday, will find more. My theory is that 90 percent of artifacts are found by hunters, not archeologists. About 80 percent of the artifacts in this area are still yet to be found.”
The story of the ancient Hopewell tribe has yet to be told.
“The only way we have of knowing our ancestors is through stone,” said Shannon. “They left behind no history books. All we have as evidence of their existence is from the pieces we find today. Where did these people go after leaving Daviess County? Their story continues.”
And the McCrary story continues as well.
“Our son, Gunnar, is 10, and loves to go arrowhead hunting,” said Shannon. “The joke between us is that one of these days he’s going to find something big. He’s looking for that treasure.”
— written by T.L. Huffman, Gallatin North Missourian,
published April 12, 2017; Vol. 152, No. 46