Is the arrowhead you found in the river a
Floater, sinker, flier, or a tumbler?
By Tammy and Bill Breckinridge
Autumn is a mysterious season. There's Halloween, of course, and the tricks the changing
light plays with our eyes and minds. Last October my wife Tammy and I were exploring the
Arkansas River to find new spots to artifact hunt. It was a beautiful fall afternoon, fairly typical
for this area. It was blue sky overhead and warm, but without mosquitoes and chiggers. We
found a pullout where the local teen-agers had been partying at night, apparently for quite
some time judging by the number of beer cans. Sticks in hand, water bottles strung around
our shoulders, and packs in place, we headed out for the water. I walked to the nearest island
of rocks and my wife took off up river. We both hunted until the sun was about to set. Even
though the gravel seemed perfect for flint artifacts, I had found nothing. Tammy headed my
way right at sunset, and we started to leave. I wanted to hunt on the way out, and was staring
at the ground when I heard my wife shout "I found a Gary!" Quickly, I ran toward her and knelt
down beside the new found point-sure enough it was a Gary. It was about 2 inches or so, and
gray and white striped. Unbelievably it was just lying on top of the sand with a slightly
concave side down to the riverbed. It looked as though it had been flying through the sand!
Since finding the memorable "Flying Gary" I have given some thought as to how stone
artifacts, arrowheads and knives in particular, move through the various strata in rivers and
eventually are re-deposited on the surface. I have a theory. Funny as it seems, by the time we
pick up an arrowhead it has experienced many lives. First, it was just a rock, a piece of flint,
quartzite, slate obsidian, dolomite, or whatever. Then, some one knapped a useful weapon or
tool from the stone. Sometimes artifacts were so useful they got "all used up", and just a nub
was discarded. However, a few tools/weapons were lost soon after manufacture and spent
the next few hundred or thousand years hidden away from human eyes. What transpired in
the span of time between the moment the artifact was lost or discarded and the moment it was
found by another human being? Has the artifact spent most of this time just laying on top of
the sand or was it cycled though great floods and tons of silt to lie on the bottom of the river?
Was it wedged between two huge rocks for centuries? Did it wash out of a feeder creek or
was it lost on the river itself when a canoe overturned? Was it lost on the same spot it was
found, or did it travel downstream in the current, swimming like a fish? The dynamics of
movement through river strata are completely unknown to me. But that hasn't stopped me
from developing my own theory regarding artifacts that fly, tumble, float, or sink their way into
my life. So, just for fun allow me to explain.
First, I will describe how an artifact can mysteriously "fly" through sand. If the arrowhead is
shaped aerodynamically like a bird or an airplane, it gets lift from the current and stability from
its tail. For example, the Gary that my wife, Tammy, found looked like an F-15! It has a sharp
nose, delta wings, and a short stubby tail. Although it looked like it had just landed, I suspect
that it was on the verge of taking off! Sometimes after a flier "lands" on the surface of the
river, wind or rain will erode the sand around the point, leaving it on a little pedestal. These
arrowheads are an artifact hunter's dream come true: a fully exposed artifact gently raised on
its own bed just waiting to be picked up.
Tumblers, on the other hand, have a lot of surface area but poor to no aerodynamics.
Once they make their way up from the depths to the surface of the river they catch the current
but they can't sustain any lift, and just tumble along through the churning gravel like an
autumn leaf. Many are partially covered when found, as they are thoroughly mixed in the
gravel. Tumblers often receive more wear and tear from the river than other classes of
That brings us to floaters. Floaters are artifacts in which the lift cancels out the drag.
Floaters move along the river like old logs, their surfaces just barely above the sand. You
may see only a patch of the blade, a small flat area of worked flint. Lucky artifact hunters are
always on the lookout for these glinting patches that hint at buried treasures. Floaters often
appear after a heavy rainfall or windstorm that washes or blows away the sand that previously
covered most of the artifact. Floaters basically maintain a balanced, even keel as they make
their way downstream.
Last, but not least, are those artifacts I've named sinkers. Sinkers tend to be round in
cross section. Let me describe a classic sinker that I found. This sinker is a Woodland Knife,
about 3" long. Three fourths of the knife, from the base to near the tip, is a brownish
limestone. The tip itself is a glossy black flint that is fairly well flaked. But, right smack in the
middle of the limestone section is a thick clam fossil-believe it or not! This gives the knife a
distinctive, lumpy look and feel. There's a lot of usage on the knife, so its owner apparently
didn't mind it's strange lumpiness. When I found this sinker it was lying at the bottom of a
small sea of mud and sludge among black, slimy rocks as big as my head. It had softly sunk
into its smelly bed of sludge, just as low as it could sink. Sinkers are usually found among
large rocks or along the actual streambed, and are rarely seen in sand and gravel.
Well, that about wraps up my artifact hydrodynamics theory for now. It will, I'm sure,
evolve as I find more flint on the river. Dear Reader, if you have discovered some of the
mysteries surrounding arrowhead movement though river strata, please share. And, the next
time you spot a flint tool on the river, please refrain from touching it until you have asked
According to Bill's theory of artifact dynamics, is my point a....
Flier, floater, tumbler, or a sinker?
This article was first published
in Indian Artifact Magazine,
and is reprinted for