I guess, what we own or maybe what we collect tells something about us. Or maybe I just have a streak in me that likes to pick up things, and if you even glance at my downtown office, you would nod in the affirmative. But since I’m a working geologist, and my studies have focused on the earth’s geologic history, and the earths minerals, that’s to be expected. Yes, and I have shelves of mineral and rock specimens, but that just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to my collecting.
My serious collecting began when I was in my early teens. From conversations with farmers along the Ouachita River watershed, I found out that South Arkansas was laced with old Indian camps. That’s when my first splurge of collecting sent me walking up and down rows in cotton fields near the river looking for arrowheads. My display cases now have hundreds of arrowheads, mostly from South Arkansas, and although I stopped the arrowhead hunting when I left South Arkansas to attend the University, I did continue, for a few years, while in school, searching along the White River and added to my collection.
Back when I was 14, I took five of the south Arkansas arrowheads, packed them up, and naively mailed them, with a note where I found them, to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D. C. The note said: “Please tell me which Indians made these arrowheads.”
Well, believe it or not, in a few weeks I receive my arrowheads back with I very nice letter telling me that four of those arrowheads were made by relatively recent Caddo Indians, but one of the arrowheads I sent them was much, much older. Later, I realized earlier Indians who lived in South Arkansas could be distinguished by the shape of their arrowheads and the fact that these ancient Indians were pre-pottery. You never find broken pottery pieces in camps of these early Indians. These Indians didn’t have the skill to produce pottery.
I have a question for any actual anthropologist who may read this column. There is a World Heritage site in North Louisiana called Poverty Point, which has huge mounds made by prehistoric Indians. In the museum’s exhibit onsite, I noted the absence of any pottery. There is a non-pottery Indian mound in Union County, another one across the Ouachita River in Calhoun County, and a non-mound but non-pottery site in Bradley County at the mouth of Bangs Slough. Are all these non-pottery sites related to the miss-named Toltec mounds farther north in east Arkansas?
By the way, a visit to the World Heritage site Poverty Point is worth the trip. The mounds there are enormous, and it is mind boggling to think they were built by Indians carrying dirt in baskets.
I guess, my arrowhead collection numbers several hundred from both early and later Indians. By the time I went off to college, I could rattle off the sites of at least a half dozen old Indians villages. But I was just getting started in my collecting.
As a geologist part of my work is to make maps of the subsurface geologic formations for use in the search for oil and gas, and I think that gave me an interest in surface maps. Over the years, that interest has become almost an obsession to collect antique maps. At first, I just collected old Arkansas maps, but I quickly found out that Arkansas didn’t exist on maps before 1800. So, if I wanted to collect earlier maps they would be pre-Arkansas Territorial maps, which opened up a whole new area of map collecting, and you would not believe the multiple sources where I found maps, which covered the Louisiana Purchase area of our country. A vacation in the south of France turned up a pre-1800 Louisiana Purchase map in a local flea market, but by far the best of my maps came from the Map Room in London, from a source in New York City near Bloomingdales, and from Santa Fe, New Mexico. I have 67 framed antique maps dating back to the early 1700s hanging in my office.
If you are a serious collector, you collect as you travel, and since I worked overseas for several years, I hauled back fossils, pottery, and minerals from several countries including a large batch of beautiful gypsum replaced sea shells from the Libyan Desert. As I supervised drilling and coring of numerous oil and gas wells, that added large pieces of rock cores from these wells that add an “I’m an oilman” look to my office. Those along with several trilobite fossils from Morocco says, “I’m a geologist. “
Of course, if you have blank walls in your house and buildings and you are a collector, you relish the idea of filling them with art, and Vertis helped along the way by bidding at an auction in Northwest Arkansas and buying a set of Richard Timm wildlife prints. She made a good bid in the auction, but framing the 31 signed prints nearly broke me.
But there’s more; I added to my collecting during vacations when we traveled to the Central American country of Belize, which is a collector’s paradise, and today my home display case has several excellent pieces of Pre-Colombian Mayan artifacts.
A serious collector will never pass up an auction, especially if old stamp collections are on the block. And since I collected stamps when I was a teen, over the years, I bought several albums, and I have a sizable box containing thousands of stamps. I don’t have a clue if these stamps are worth even checking out their value.
Then, as we traveled on vacation to New York City, I began to attend Sotheby’s auctions, and not only did I attend, I bid. Well, at Sotheby’s some items sell for millions, but thousands of pre-Colombian artifacts sell for a few hundred dollars, and I have a display case to prove it.
But even though my glass display cases contain most of the object that are valuable, and I mean in the hundreds not thousands of dollars, I treasure the glass shelves along one wall in our dining room that has a wide variety of collected items, none of which have any real value to anyone except Vertis and me. Pieces of broken cups from Ancient Greece, clay net-fishing sinkers from the jungles of Belize, and assorted minerals such as amber, gypsum, and halite. Of course, every Arkansas geologist worth his salt will have numerous quartz crystals. Most of these items I actually collected from various working trips and vacations on at least three continents. But I’m not a pot hunter, or one who would destroy the intrinsic value of a historic site. I collect what a plow or erosion has uncovered, and I have never dug or vandalized a historic site.
Well, a true collector never stops collecting, and I catch myself viewing the ground every time I am in a prospective historic or river bank area. Of course, as Vertis will tell you, if something else comes in the front door something else had better go out the back door.
Richard Mason is a registered professional geologist, downtown developer, former chairman of the Department of Environmental Quality Board of Commissioners, past president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, and syndicated columnist. Email richard@ gibraltarenergy.com.