The Search For Ancient History At Local Beaches

Laura Mayo shows off the ancient arrowhead she found on a local beach recently while hunting for artifacts with Orson Frisbee.

One day, several thousand years ago, a Native American hunter picked up an especially hard rock, one he had probably used many times before, and began whacking away at a small piece of carefully chosen milky gray quartz he likely picked up on a nearby shoreline of Gardiners Bay.

As the ancient hunter clacked the two rocks together in a meticulous manner, the harder one flaked off shards of the softer quartz, gradually forming a sharp, scalloped edge along each side of the stone. The experienced stonesmith carefully angled the edges together at a point prickly enough to penetrate tough animal hide. Finally, he broke away the sides of the base, creating a narrow neck so his new arrowhead could be lashed to the tip of a wooden shaft.

On a much more recent afternoon, as the late fall sunlight bathed an East Hampton bay beach in rich golden light, the still faintly sharpened edge and tell-tale narrowed base of the ancient native’s skilled handiwork caught the eye of Laura Mayo, as she strolled deliberately along the spring tide wrack line, near where upland wild grasses encroached onto the beach of stone and sand.

Crouching down, she lifted the object, not quite convinced that what had triggered her reflexive memory among the kaleidoscope of other stones around her boots was what she hoped it was.

The 31-year-old grade school teacher let out a holler when she realized her instincts had proven wise again.

“Oh wow, good job, babe,” Ms. Mayo’s boyfriend, Orson Frisbie, exclaimed as he dashed excitedly to her side. “Your first smokey quartz point. Congratulations. This high line has been good to you.”

Held aloft in the waning sunshine, the stone was missing its once sharpened tip and had been substantially worn down by millennia of tumbling amid other rocks. But there was no mistaking that the gray shape had been deliberately molded by a determined human hand.

Mr. Frisbie explained that the “point” was a style known as a Lamoka point, common with the native hunters who roamed the region from what is now Illinois to southern New England, between 3,000 and 6,000 years ago.

Ms. Mayo’s discovery — though seemingly stunning, considering the object’s tiny size and apparent age — was no fluke.

She and Mr. Frisbie are regulars to this stretch of beach, and many others, and her acumen for picking out the shape of the ancient arrowheads from among the chaff of other stones and beach debris, her boyfriend says, has proven amazing. Her patience with his own, more meticulous searching, perhaps even more so.

Orson Frisbie has found more than 40 ancient Native American arrow and spear points and other artifacts, many of them thousands of years old, while scouring local beaches.

The smokey quartz triangle was the fourth arrowhead — artifact hunters call them “points” because many were fashioned to be affixed to spears or knife handles, not just arrows, which didn’t come into common use in North America until about 1,200 years ago — that Ms. Mayo has found in the months since Mr. Frisbie introduced her to his impassioned hobby.

In that time, the couple has spent hundreds of hours strolling local shorelines on the heels of the windy days, heads bowed, eyes intently focused in an effort to discern a minutely specific irregularity among the endless irregularities of a rocky shoreline — like finding a specific needle, in a stack of needles.

“It can be a little overwhelming,” Ms. Mayo said of the infinitesimal details that make an arrowhead made of stone stand out from literally millions of other stones. “I would say I’ve gotten very lucky. I don’t look as meticulously as he does. But you get better at it. Your eye definitely gets trained.”

Mr. Frisbie discovered the treasure trove of Holocene epoch artifacts on Instagram where Montauk Indian Museum director Lawrence Cook and other amateur archaeologists share their own finds. A seasoned forager for wild mushrooms and other wild edibles, Mr. Frisbie said he’s always been inclined to scan the ground where he walks and collect beach glass and other interesting finds. The fascinating history of ancient native points instantly grabbed his interest.

His girlfriend says that she marvels at his enthusiasm for it, which has drawn her in as well.

“He’s so passionate about it, it makes you want to be a part of it,” she said.

Cut from a different mold than what most might picture a historical artifact enthusiast, the 34-year-old bartender and surf camp instructor will spend hours upon hours scouring shorelines, both in the light of day and by headlamp at night. At home he pores through archaeological books, studying the history of the humans that spread across the Bering Sea land bridge during the last ice age and gradually spread eastward across North America.

Ancient points come in a wide variety of different shapes and sizes that indicate their intended use — from the oldest, largest points that were to be used for hunting the gargantuan prehistoric mammals that populated the continent before the arrival of humans, to the smallest and most delicate for spearing fish. There are also knife blades and stones fashioned into scrapers for treating hides, rocks with minerals in them that could dye fabrics, the defacto-hammers that were used for shaping sharper rocks, pottery fragments and cooking utensils, even a crude pipe. Most are made from stone commonly seen along local beaches, like quartz — others are not, indicating that their user had likely traded for materials with a hunter from another region.

“When you find this stuff, it tells you the story of our area, which I think is really cool,” Mr. Frisbie says. “There is a such a generalization of Native American knowledge, the stereotypical image of Indians riding horses and shooting arrows, but that is a tiny bit of a tiny bit of history. When the pyramids were being built, there was already an established civilization here for thousands of years — in an area where I grew up. That’s what fascinates me so much.”

Orson Frisbie has found more than 40 ancient Native American arrow and spear points and other artifacts, many of them thousands of years old, while scouring local beaches.

The length of that history is what makes finding the evidence of its presence feasible. Only over thousands and thousands of years could such a trove of evidence, that took so long to create and was used by a relatively small number of people, build up in a quantity sufficient enough that simply strolling a shoreline could produce regular discoveries.

Mr. Frisbie and Ms. Mayo have developed some strategies. He looks for areas that are near both saltwater and freshwater, with raised upland areas between, where a hunting party might be likely to settle. Shorelines are the most productive, both because they would have been likely hunting spots and also because the dynamics of wind and waves and erosion produces a constant refreshing of the stock.

The “high line” that Ms. Mayo tends to follow, Mr. Frisbie says, is often productive because the shaped points are typically lighter than regular stones and will be carried up the beach by wave action and settle where the highest high tides and storm surges leave their debris line.

The most treasured points — those that are still fully formed and sharp to the touch, even thousands of years later — are certain to be ones that were only very recently eroded out of a retreating bluff or the peat of a former marsh that had protected them since a hunter flung them at a fish or fowl.

Ms. Mayo has found three such perfect points, including one that Mr. Frisbie marveled at as still being sharp enough to taken to the field on a hunt tomorrow.

The couple often brings along friends who enjoy the peaceful time at the beach, but often head back to their cars as the minutes stretch into hours and they march on, heads bowed.

Mr. Frisbie, who keeps his treasured artifacts in padded display cases, which he is eager to catalog and detail the historical evidence from, says he welcomes the spread of the knowledge that such rich instruments of our predecessors in the region are there to be found. His search, he says, is for windows of new knowledge, not trophies.

“I don’t look at it as finding things for myself, I want to pass them on and I like sharing the knowledge and telling people the story,” he said. “I see each point I find as being saved, for history.”