Digging into state's past

Indian artifacts tell tales of first Marylanders

November 04, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,special to the sun

Daniel Coates picked up a tool made from cedar, a beaver tooth, a clam shell and leather string.

He aligned the tip of a six-foot spear with the beaver tooth, aimed and flung it. The spear zipped through the air about 60 feet, just missing a paper target attached to two hay bales stacked on the ground.

"This is the way it all started ... early man hunted with nothing more than a thrust-type spear," Coates said after the demonstration in the front yard of his Havre de Grace home.

The device is called an atlatl, and consists of a stick with a handle at one end and a hook that holds a light spear on the other. First used in North America by hunters about 11,000 B.C., the device helped increase the velocity of the spear.

The replica atlatl, made by Coates, is one of several items that will be on display next weekend as part of a Native American life exhibit at the Hays House Museum in Bel Air. The exhibit is scheduled to coincide with Native American Indian Heritage Month.

In addition to the spear-throwing demonstrations, the exhibit will include a presentation on setting up a Cheyenne tepee; a clothing, beadwork, moccasins, and tools exhibit; lifestyle interpretations of Plains Indians; and a display of artifacts.

Coates, 62, got involved with the Hays House program through his affiliation with the Archeological Society of the Northern Chesapeake, a nonprofit group devoted to the conservation of Maryland archaeology. But his interest in American Indian culture started when he was growing up in Harford County, he said.

As a Boy Scout, Coates was interested in Indian lore and outdoor survival. Later he was a helicopter pilot and instructor for the Army, where part of his job included aircrew survival training.

His interest in survival morphed into a desire to learn more about how early man survived in the wild, he said, and he began to study archaeology.

About eight years ago, he became president of the Archeological Society of the Northern Chesapeake. He spent years becoming certified as an archaeological technician, which included taking part in excavations.

The digs took place in Havre de Grace, Perryville and on Garrett Island, where Coates found stone blades and spear points. Although little is known about which tribes were in Maryland when the stone blades and spear points were made, some of the American Indians who were known to have arrived in the 1600s included the Nanticoke, Powhatan, and Susquehannock tribes.

But archaeology is about more than just finding and collecting artifacts, he said. Coates wants others to get the chance to see his collection.

"Most artifacts were discarded items that were used by man and left," he said. "If you look at a new car as you drive it off the car lot, you can't tell a lot about the owner. But if you look at it the day before it goes to the junkyard, you can tell a lot about the owner."

At the event, Coates will demonstrate spear throwing and allow spectators to try it as well.

To help to better understand early American Indians, Coates began making his own tools. He made one atlatl from teak wood, river rock, turtle shell, bear fur and a deer antler tied with rawhide. To illustrate the multiple uses of the tools, he created an animal-tracking device out of the turtle shell. Pictures of animal paw prints that included animals running and walking are painted on the shell.

Other items in his collection include a baby rattle made out of deer hooves and wood, a handmade stone knife, dioramas, several handmade atlatls and pouches made from items such as a bobcat paw.

Wilbur Iley, who also will be exhibiting artifacts at the event, got interested in archaeology in the mid-1960s, when he took his son out to find an arrowhead. The 88-year-old Fallston resident didn't know a thing about Indians or archaeology at the time.

But that changed when he became one of the founding members of the Harford County Archeological Society, the forerunner to the Archeological Society of the Northern Chesapeake. Iley, who has helped find thousands of artifacts during the past 40 years, began making presentations to organizations and schools.

"For a lot of people, if they don't learn about something in school, they don't know about it at all," he said. "So I try to show them as many different kinds of items that I can."

One thing he teaches students about archaeology is how to determine the age of an item, he said. Many arrowheads are named for the location where they are found, which can be a clue to their age.

"Teaching children about these types of things helps to spark their interest at an early age," said Iley, who had an excavation site he discovered named after him.

if you go

The Native American exhibit is scheduled from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 11 at the Hays House Museum, 324 Kenmore Ave. in Bel Air. Admission will be $5, $3 for students and seniors citizens, and free for children younger than age 4.

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