Paul Andersen: Finding the perfect arrowhead
It was unmistakable. At my feet lay an artifact of human perfection in the red dirt of southeastern Utah. We were hiking across a mesa top through a pinon forest at the edge of a sage flat where thick cryptogamic soil was rent by the hooves of elk and deer.
The arrowhead was pearl white and luminescent when held against the sun. Its every line was perfect, including the delicate serrations napped by a skilled artisan. Here was a touchstone to the distant past of a distant people.
“You won’t believe this!” I announced to my friend Graeme and my son, Tait. In a flash I had bent down and reached.
I could not resist plucking the perfect arrowhead from the soil where it was slightly embedded. To hold something that had last been held by an Anasazi hunter creates a personal connection to another human being. Yet the hunter and I, met miraculously in this piece of worked stone, are from vastly different worlds.
A thousand years ago that arrowhead may have been shot from a hunter’s bow or thrown with an atlatl — then lost from the hunter’s searching eyes. Or it was so perfectly beautiful that it was kept as a talisman, a mark of pride for the craftsman who made it, whether a man, a woman or a child.
Finding antiquities on a vast landscape is a cultivated skill. One must develop canyon eyes, the visual sensitivity for particular shapes and inconsistencies in the environment. One must acutely scan for things that are out of context.
We each admired the arrowhead, turning it in our hands, feeling the point, running our fingers along the sharp edges. Each of us felt the human connection. I took a few photographs, then set it back onto the ground beneath a small sagebrush.
There was a strong temptation to slip it into my pocket. I have done that in the past, but no more. Keeping such a find would deprive others of the discovery at which we thrilled.
Better to leave antiquities in situ than to relegate them to a windowsill or book shelf.
I am still holding that arrowhead in my mind and reflecting that it was a beautiful tool for killing and an equally beautiful tool for giving life. I can still see and feel it.
How different today is our relationship with weaponry. Compare an arrowhead with a 9-milimeter round. Compare a pump booster clip with an atlatl or sinew-strung bow. Today’s weapons embody no artistry, grace or beauty. They are killing machines, without soul.
That same day, on that same hike, three other artifacts were set in my path — two partial ax heads and a partial mano — a path marked by plantations of wolfberry bushes, long ago cultivated by the Anasazi. They were also left for others to find.
These Stone Age treasures were all within the Bears Ears National Monument, a rare landscape rich with antiquities that Trump and Zinke would leave unprotected because they fail to recognize the values we now felt from a deep reverence for this place.
These finds were made on the mesa top where the ancient ones lived, the people whose granaries we explore, the people we wonder about, speculating on their happiness, their spirituality, their connection to the same desert canyon complexes we walk today.
At our camp near the canyon floor, we watched the full moon rise. It began as a glow on the rim, then a piercing silver light. It grew into an arching crescent and swelled into a bulging orb radiating the canyons with pure white light.
Crickets chirped the long story of prehistory. Frogs hopped in an ancient motion. Bats flitted playfully. The spring below our camp oozed from the top of a pour over, forming reflecting pools below. In a side canyon, sandstone tanks were cool and deep for a plunge in the heat of an October afternoon.
One day I could return and slowly retrace my footsteps through the timeless silence. With luck I could arrive at that shrub where the arrowhead lies. I could hold it again and marvel at the awesome beauty of perfection.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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