Amateur archaeologists find state’s past


Story, video and slideshow by Kiah Haslett, NewsNetNebraska.

It was an immigrant shoemaker’s artifact collection that caught Dick Eckles’ eye and sparked his imagination:

He really wanted to find an arrowhead.

It was during the 1950s, in Edgar, a small town two hours southwest of Lincoln. Eckles was nine.

His dad was an avid outdoorsman and willing to try everything. So the pair scoured campsites near water sources and hilltops, asking local farmers if they had seen any arrowheads in their fields. They were hunting for artifacts, eventually honing in on the sandy gravel bars along rivers and streams.
Eckles grew up, got a job in communications and eventually retired in Nelson, 30 minutes south of Edgar. But he never lost his love of the hunt and his interest in the past.

Now, Eckles, 64, is an amateur archeologist and one of the cofounders of the Nebraska Archeological Society, the official state society within a network of Midwest societies. The society provides a place for amateur archeologists from around the state to enjoy their hobby, learn about their finds, meet professional archeologists and listen to speakers. Members learn how to document their finds and share them with professionals. The society pays homage to and explores Nebraska’s past, while trying to piece together the story of a simpler time through stone tools, bone fragments and arrowheads.

The Archeological Society

The society meets four times a year at various locations around Nebraska, in addition to holding a yearly show in Seward. During the meetings, a professional archeologist presents a seminar. November’s meeting in Lincoln featured University of Nebraska State Museum associate professor Alan Osborn’s talk on “The Feasibility of Hunting Mammoth with Poison Tipped Weapons.”

Eckles said he has been involved with the Nebraska and Kansas collecting community for many years. His network and connections came in handy when he was approached to be a cofounder of the Nebraska Archeological Society in 2004. The society grew from 33 members that year to 144 members in 2010, he said. The society’s marketing is light – a brochure left at a museum or a press release to announce the quarterly meeting. Most members join through word-of-mouth.

Eckles is the editor-in-chief of the newsletter and helps plan the annual Nebraska Artifact Show. The artifact show invites amateur archeologists to display their sometimes-vast collections to other members and the curious public for free. These shows are non-commercial, Eckles said, but present an opportunity for members to study, network and learn. Professional archeologists and paleontologists present lectures.

Today, Eckles is an avocational archeologist and looks for surface artifacts, rather than create digs and formal sites. When he finds an arrowhead or a stone tool, he documents its location, takes it home and researches it: What is it made of, how old is it, for what it was used. If it is significant, he calls a professional archeologist at a state university or museum. He said he and his father found several sites in Kansas, including a site of the Great Plains’ earliest occupants, called the Clovis, and another that dates to the late prehistoric. One of the archeologists excavating the Clovis site used it in his doctorial dissertation.

Eckles is interested in archeology for the same reason many amateur archeologists are: Someone was here. Someone was here a long time ago.

“I want to know more about the people that lived here 12,000 years ago or longer; know more about them, how they got here, survived – all about their tools and weapons,” he said. “It’s a fascinating thing to learn how those people survived with nothing but their skill.”

Figuring out how people living long ago used things and what that means for people living today is what interests Nancy Carlson, the vice president of the archeological society.

Carlson is a for-hire archeologist, part-time employee of the Natural Resources and Conservation Society.

“Native Americans used their resources very wisely because a lot of times, they didn’t have a choice. We need to try to get back to that,” she said.

She and her husband, Jerry, grow some of the different corn varieties the Pawnee Indians grew hundreds of years ago in their Genoa garden, about two hours northwest of Lincoln.

Carlson’s interest in archeology began about 30 years ago and piggybacked off her husband’s interest. She began volunteering at the Genoa Historical Museum, and when her daughters graduated from high school, she got her master’s in anthropology and archeology from UNL. Now, she bids on different digs that must be performed before a federal government construction project can begin work, or freelances with the university’s or state historical society’s archeological labs.

Carlson is one of the few professional archeologists in the society, which is composed of a mix of farmers and business people, young and old, rural and urban, and of course, professional and amateur. Their common interest is the love of the outdoors and of history.

The Door to History

Finding an artifact is exciting, Carlson said.

When she finds something, she records where she found it and takes a photograph. Then she begins to determine what time period it’s from and what it was used for.

Nebraska artifacts usually range from 500 years ago back, all the way to 13,000 years ago, said Kevin Hammond, senior director of investment at Assurity Life Insurance and president of the Nebraska Archeological Society. (For more information on Nebraska’s history, click here.)

The older the artifact is, the rarer its discovery. Artifacts of quality workmanship or preservation are also difficult to find.

“When you surface collect, you find a lot of broken tools,” he said. “When you find a complete artifact, it gets the imagination going about how it was used and why it was lost.”

Hammond began collecting with his parents and grandparents. He grew up in western Nebraska and his family would surface collect in the 1960s and 1970s. His family found stone tools and bone fragments, but discovered a common interest that ran from generation to generation, all the way to the newest generation: Hammond’s 9-year-old daughter.

The interest in the past fostered by his family led him to take classes at UNL and volunteer on controlled excavations. He reads professional journals and other publications to stay current on archeology, preferring now to document the sites he discovered with his family rather than find new ones.

For Hammond, the main appeal is the story behind the artifacts, and what information can be gathered from what was left behind.

“Most of what we find at archeological sites is people’s trash and throwaways. Every so often, people will lose something of value,” he said. “Archeology is important because it shows that the way we live today is not necessarily the best way, and that we can learn from the way people adapted to environmental changes. The environment does change, and it has dramatic effects on people’s life-ways.”

Our Artifacts

The paper and ink photographic artifacts of Eckles’, Carlson’s and Hammond’s family and lives would not last thousands of years like the artifacts they find now, but they are the items they all wished to be remembered by.

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Photos provided by Dick Eckles.

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