TILGHMAN ISLAND – Darrin Lowery held a black bit of stone that he found on this Tilghman Island beach 23 years ago. It is triangular and smaller than a nickel, with two smooth sides and a fine edge.
It was part of a tool used about 11,000 years ago, he said, when the Chesapeake Bay did not exist and early Marylanders shared a frigid climate with woolly mammoths, mastodons and the occasional saber-toothed tiger.
Lowery has found dozens of Paleoindian artifacts in this overgrown patch of land, which is about the size of a city block. They include a burn-stained campsite hearth and some sharp tools he calls “projectile points” — not arrowheads, because the bow and arrow had not been invented when they were made.
But the sand where Lowery found his first artifacts on the western edge of Tilghman is underwater now. The hearth is covered at high tide, and may soon be permanently submerged.
“The shoreline is not stabilized, it’s continually eroding,” said Lowery, a contract archaeologist for the Maryland Historical Trust. “If (the hearth) disappears, obviously we’ve lost a significant portion of the archaeological record for this site.”
The site has been nominated as a possible National Historic Landmark, which could bring funding for buffers to break the force of waves striking the shore. But until then, more artifacts will be washed away every year.
“The rate of erosion has accelerated over the past few years,” he said. “There’s a lot of sites here on the Eastern Shore that are in an exposed setting. They’re all being exposed to the same stresses.”
The Tilghman site is one of 12 around the country that are candidates for landmark status, part of a National Park Service effort to preserve and study the remains of Paleoindian humans in North America.
The site on Tilghman’s Paw Paw Cove is an overgrown patch of land amid surrounding mown fields, one edge lapped continually by the bay.
Lowery, who grew up nearby, was playing on the beach as a child when he found the first bits of oddly shaped stone that pricked his curiosity.
Now 31, Lowery has since found dozens of such stones as well as organic samples preserved in the clay soil, including a carbonized nutshell and charcoal bits.
Finding more organic samples would make the site more worthy of landmark status. That, in turn, could help win funding for carbon-dating of items at the site to give it a more precise age.
“We haven’t found a lot of sites that have preserved organic remains in the East,” said Richard Ervin, an archaeologist with the Maryland State Highway Administration. “Because of that we have a more limited understanding of exactly how Paleoindian peoples in the East were living.”
Lowery said little is known for sure about the era, but some of its living conditions have been established.
“It may have been cold and extremely dry … like going to Alaska today” because of a glacier covering Canada, he said.
That glacier would melt several thousand years later, filling the surrounding lowlands and creating the Chesapeake Bay.
But until then, a frigid climate unsuited to settling down and raising crops would make Paleoindians routinely walk hundreds of miles hunting and gathering food, showing a resourcefulness that Lowery said we can learn from.
“Back then, natural selection processes were much more apparent,” Lowery said. “Humans in this time period were much more in tune to the environment than we are or ever will be.
“When they went to a spot and settled, they went there because there was something on the landscape — in the bog, in the river — that was essential for them to live. We have lost a lot of that knowledge of how to live on the landscape,” he said.
“Back then, when they were hungry, they had to utilize every aspect of their knowledge of their surroundings. By studying these sites we can learn something from what they were doing,” he said.
And the best way to learn is to examine undisturbed remains of a settlement, he said, “just like a forensic scientist looks at a murder scene and creates a story of how that person died.”
Lowery said many sites have been disrupted by plowing and construction. The artifacts may be intact, but the story that might have been told by their position in the soil is forever lost.
“If you find a stone point embedded in an animal’s rib, obviously that tool was used to kill that animal,” said Lowery.
Sharp-edged stones found next to animal bones could mean the stone was used for skinning and cutting, and bits of flint found around a cluster of projectile points could give hints of how prehistoric humans made other tools. Pollen samples could show the kind of trees fostered by the Paleoindian climate.
And the Tilghman site’s clay soil, which Lowery says “was almost as hard as concrete” when he began exploring the site, could have thousands of these clues frozen in place.
“The potentially very exciting thing … is Darrin’s most recent excavations have revealed an intact living surface,” said Ervin.
“What it means is that we’ve got a relatively intact record of their occupation. We’re able to tell a lot more about what was going on there,” he said.
Lowery dated the Tilghman site by one type of point, first found near Clovis, N.M., that archaeologists have linked to the Paleoindian period.
The Tilghman site “is easier to interpret because it doesn’t have later occupations on it that would make it difficult to determine what artifacts came from what” time period, said Carol Ebright, also a State Highway Administration archaeologist.
Lowery said people throughout history have left behind detritus offering valuable clues to their societies and the ways they lived. And the more clues, the better.
“If I looked at your garbage from a week ago, I could tell something about your status,” he said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have much garbage from 11,000 years ago.”