Archive for May 23rd, 2013

May 23, 2013

Stumbling Upon a Relic, Connecting with the Past

Many of the things that make gardening and farming worthwhile are not apparent until you stumble upon them. Obvious enjoyment in the act of working the soil comes from the sense of accomplishment and self-sufficiency they provide.  The cheap produce grown with your own hands and the knowledge of what went into creating the produce are another plus.

After a while, while musing about your garden and what you are planting, you realize that you are gleaning knowledge that should make you eligible for college credit. You gain experience in soil science, biology, botany, meteorology, geology, and of course, agriculture. Gardening and farming can also give you a sense of connecting to history. A couple of ways this may happen is through the heirloom vegetables you are growing or the old fashioned methods you use to grow your crops. Another way you can connect to history while gardening or farming, which crosses over to a different realm outside of these two pursuits, happens when you find artifacts in your soil.

I started gardening as a kid in Franklin Park next to a house that was built in 1915. Over the years as I turned the soil over I dug up parts of old, obviously antique bottles, chunks of coal, and for some reason marbles, tons of marbles! These finds always made me think of the people who lived in my house in previous decades. Who were the kids who played in the yard with all of these marbles? Where are they now? How old are these marbles? From the coal, it was clear to me that the house must have been heated by coal at one time. This made me think, did they make the kids who played with the marbles shovel the coal? I once found some kind a campaign coin that advertised “Vote twice for Alderman Anton Cermak President and Member, Board of County Commissioners.” Another prize from that old garden was an arrowhead made by some long ago Native American.


Alderman Cermak campaign coin

(Click on pictures for better view)

These days we are gardening, and raising livestock, out at our farm in Knox County and the relic discoveries have intensified. Many relics pulled from the soil at the farm are just discarded junk, old electrical fixtures, broken jars, and bricks. Others have novelty value such as a nice collection of 1960’s era soda pop bottles churned out of the soil by the action of our hogs. They were possibly tossed aside by some farm kids of the time who were later chewed out for losing what were then returnable bottles. Two very intriguing relics that I also have to give my hogs credit for finding are more Native American relics. These were lying around for some time after being dug up but their importance was not apparent until further inspection revealed that they were ancient tools of some kind.

Porcine Archaeologists

Porcine archaeologists on staff at Smiling Frog Farm

Soon after it became clear that these were in fact relics, my wife looked up a website that listed relics found in Illinois. From this we deduced that the one old tool is a celt. A celt is an axe like tool which can also be used like a hoe. It is something like an adze. The other tool was not as easily identifiable. It looked like to us it was some kind of a hammer or, as the website described, a war club.  The age that the website put on these objects was incredible! They were said to have been used from between 2000 to 3000 years ago! I had been a little skeptical of this assessment as the website was selling relics and could be overstating the age of any relic posted to boost the price.

Metate and Celt

Metate and unfinished Celt


As I said gardening and farming can connect one to history in many ways. The arrowhead, celt, and the other object that have been uncovered in various gardens over the years made me wonder about the Native Americans who made them. How were the tools used? Why were they discarded? Where could I find this information? As luck would have it Kelvin Sampson of the Dickson Mounds State Historic Site spoke at the KnoxCountyHistoricalMuseum in Knoxville, Illinois on Sunday. He gave a great information filled presentation assessing any relics brought in by the general public. I, of course, brought in the arrowhead, celt, and the other object.

According to Mr. Sampson, the first object was indeed a celt, but one that was not finished. It did not have the polished surface that a finished celt had. Other people did bring in finished celts and he used them as examples. The second object, the one we were not so sure of, was next. He had looked at objects that other people had brought in and determined that, although they looked like man-made objects, they were natural pieces of stone shaped by water. The assumption suddenly came over me that our stone may be just that, a stone. But when Kelvin looked at it he held it to the audience and showed two dimples, one on each side. This told him that although it looked natural it was man made. He determined the relic to be a metate, or mealing stone. It was probably used to smash open acorns or nuts. These two relics were appraised by Mr. Sampson as being around 3000 years old confirming the website information.

I found the arrowhead when I was about 11 or so. Since that time I have always wanted more information on it. After reading up on the Native American history of the Chicago Area, I always assumed that a Pottawatomie had been hunting in Franklin Park back before the white man settled there and discarded the arrowhead.  I also assume that this was sometime before there was any trade for guns and other tools that the white people had to offer, probably before the 1600’s. But the first thing that I learned from Kelvin Sampson about the arrowhead was that it was not an arrowhead. An arrowhead is about the size of a dime and this object was about two inches long.


Dongola Scraper

Dongola scraper, spear point, or knife

What I have is a knife, spear point or a scraper. Also, it was made of what is known as “Dongola chert.” This chert comes from far Southern Illinois or Southern Indiana and was traded up north following the extensive trade routes of the time. The biggest thing that I learned though, was that after the Native Americans began to grow corn the need for the types of tools, like the one I thought was an arrowhead, were no longer necessary. So the object was much older than I had ever imagined. It may be between 3000 and 8000 years old!

I was 11 or so when I found the scraper. The other kids that I showed it off to would almost always erupt “That’s not worth anything!” of course referring to money. But the value this object had was the connection that it gave me to a person that lived centuries ago in the same spot where I grew up. Long before there was a Franklin Park, a person dropped a scraper. It became buried and possibly moved by later farmers, house builders or home owners trying to grow a lawn, only to be found by a curious gardener. Long before there was a KnoxCounty, somebody left their tools behind. The tools have marks on them that probably came from being hit by plows or disks so they probably were moved around many times as well, only to be found by curious hogs. Yes, some of the things that make gardening and farming worthwhile are not apparent until you stumble upon them!