Central States Archaeological Societies
Central States Archaeological Societies

Hunting for the Past in Wisconsin

Todd Murphy

Central States Archaeological Societies 2005 January Journal

Rochester, Minnesota

Hunting for the Past in Wisconsin
From the collection of Todd Murphy, Rochester, Minnesota.

"While traveling this land from border to border and from Sea to Sea, there have been a few occasions to leave the beaten path and to find the peace and quiet that's food for thought in just walking through a trackless forest, or exploring ruins of the earliest settlers, or walking along a creek bed, hoping to find a relic, such as a tomahawk, an axe or even an arrowhead, left by a race of long since vanished Indians. There's a great thrill and it's a wonderful feeling to find a flint arrowhead."
"The Flint Arrowhead" from Johnny Cash's album, From Sea to Shining Sea

After Johnny Cash died last year, I was on the internet searching through some albums from the "Man in Black" when I came across a song (more like a speech set to music) about a flint arrowhead. What a thrill I get when I discovered my favorite singer also shared my favorite hobby.

I grew up in southwestern Wisconsin in an area called the "Driftless Zone." This was a small section of the state that was left untouched by the glaciers heading south from Canada many thousands of years ago. Most of my family were dairy farmers and I loved visiting my grandparent's farm every week. I took it for granted then, but now feel lucky to have had access to hundreds of acres of rolling hills and valleys to explore. Unfortunately, when I had all of the time in the world to look for artifacts, I didn't have much interest in them. It wasn't until I was in my mid-twenties and had moved a hundred miles from home, that I really got addicted to it. Each spring I make the drive back as many times as I can to walk the fields. With the ever-increasing practice of "no-till" I don't find nearly as many as I used to, but I tell myself, "there's always next year."

The artifacts I find usually come from three materials. First is Prarie du Chein chert, a grey-white material that isn't always the best quality. Cochrane chert, a red to brown chert From the collection of Todd Murphy, Rochester, Minnesota. that is of better quality, and my favorite material, Hixton Silicified Sandstone (H.S.S.).

Hixton Silicified Sandstone, or "Sugar Quartz" is a very hard form of bonded silica. It is usually a grey/silver color but is also found in red, orange, purple, and I've even seen it in green. Although there are many small outcroppings of this material, most of it comes from an area in Jackson County called Silver Mound. In the 1800s and possibly earlier than that, the first Euro-Americans to visit the area noticed pits dug into the ground by Native Americans to quarry the stone. Because of the pits and the glint of silver in the rock, they assumed that they might indeed find precious metals there. However, after a few years of mining, they found nothing.

Twelve thousand years earlier, the first Native Americans to venture into Wisconsin would discover the source of the high quality stone for making tools and would come back year after year. Artifacts from Paleo Clovis points to Late Woodland Madison triangular points have been found made of Hixton Silicified Sandstone. It is one of Wisconsin's many treasures.

  H.S.S. Madison Triangulars (longest point in middle is Prarie du Chein chert) (1100-300 BP)
H.S.S. Orange Silicified Sandstone Steuben, measuring 1-1/2 inches (1700-1500 BP)  
    H.S.S. Agate Basin (damaged) (10,000 BP) and a Hardin Barbed (10,000-8,000 BP)

H.S.S. Red Cochrane chert Steuben, measuring 1-3/4 inches (1700-1500 BP)

  H.S.S. broken Clovis (11,300-10,900 BP)


The fields where I hunt are about 80 miles from Silver Mound. My mind wanders when I see the little flakes debitage and wonder how the material made its journey here. In fact, Hixton Silicified Sandstone has traveled farther than that, being found as far away as Mammoth Cave, Kentucky.

I have been lucky enough to find many artifacts made from H.S.S. including two Clovis points. Each year I take my finds to the good folks at the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center in La Crosse where they document, photograph and teach about each piece. I will continue to look for more artifacts made from Sugar Quartz and hopefully my two young sons, Jack (3) and Wyatt (1) will inherit my passion for the past and join me on future hunts. I couldn't agree more with Johnny Cash, "It's a wonderful thing to find a flint arrowhead."


Silver Mound C Its History and Archaeology, Jackson County, Wisconsin, Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center, University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse.

Robert F. Boszhardt A Projectile Point Guide For The Upper Mississippi River Valley CSAJ_p01-24_jan05.qx 2/20/05 8:06 PM Page 15



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