Homochitto quartzite formation full of mystery

Clockwise from top left: Rare Hattiesburg quartzite arrowheads found by Spillman and Sturdivant; Havard in rocky hills; close-up of Hattiesburg quartzite; prairie blazing star wildflower.

When most of us spot a boulder, we just see gray rock. When Wayne Havard sees one, he spies history — and mystery.

Take Hattiesburg quartzite, found in parts of Franklin County. It’s unusual to find large rocks and boulders of any sort in this part of the world — not sandstone, not soft clay-rock, but hard gray boulders.

This particular stone has a glassy smooth face. Havard, who is also a flint-knapper, found it to be excellent for making arrowheads. Yet he has never run across any Native American artifacts made of the stuff.

“None of them (experts) have an answer why,” said Havard. “The best explanation I’ve had is they (Native Americans) traded it.

“I’ve walked these creeks I don’t know how many miles looking for materials to flint-knap, and (artifacts) are scarce as hen’s teeth.”

Havard has chunks of the quartzite at his home and his body shop in Gloster, but he wanted to show me the raw material in its native element, so on Tuesday we drove north on Highway 33.

After we crossed the Homochitto River and started climbing, Havard pointed out a vein of white chalk that is part of the formation and extends into Wilkinson County.

We turned off on backroads and headed south into an area known as Free Woods. Once we passed a church and a few houses, the road became even more narrow, crooked and amazingly steep.

Tall longleaf pines — once the dominant tree species here — overshadowed the road. I had the spooky feeling we’d entered another dimension and were traveling back in time.  

“Pull over right up there,” Havard said, pointing to some big chunks of gray rock.

We got out and he brushed aside dirt and moss to reveal the characteristic glassy smooth surface.

Then we turned off down a Forest Service road along a high ridge. We set off on foot down a spur through coffeeweed, prairie blazing star and rattlesnake fern. Long-leaf pines towered all around, their upturned branches like green chandeliers.

Boulders littered the slopes, not a common site in most of southwest Mississippi. We worked our way downhill, pausing to examine several.

Havard is an old-time woodsman, an expert trapper, fisherman and hunter, specializing in turkey and squirrel. He is also a lay historian whose family has deep roots in the area.

He’s deeply familiar with the story of 19th century Indian fighter Lewis Wetzel, said to have been buried in 1808 at Havard’s Ferry, now known as Rosetta. He’s also well-versed in the history of Free Woods, a community where whites, blacks and Native Americans lived together freely prior to the Civil War.

Havard also loves old-timey bluegrass music. His grandfather was a fiddler and other family members played.

In the woods he notices everything from the ground up — including the rocks.

Havard recalls speaking with now-retired U.S. Forest Service archaeologist Sam Brooks, who told him Natchez Indians and early settlers used slabs of Hattiesburg quartzite as building foundations. It’s also been used for burial vaults and tombstones.

But if they turned it into arrowheads, there are few to be found.

“To me the quarries used by the Indians were a great mystery,” Havard said. “If they quarried these sites for the quartzite,  and the evidence  is clear they did, what happened to the material? It doesn’t show up in the local archaeological history, and if it was traded with other Indian people, hundreds of miles away — where? Where did this material go? It puzzles me, and the people I've talked with haven’t been able to give me an answer.”

Archaeologists are puzzled as well.

“The question of why was this material ‘avoided’ still begs to be answered today,” according to a report by Frank Gagne, Homochitto Ranger District archaeologist. “Was the outcrop considered sacred and something to be avoided or was there a taboo for one or another reason? Was it only traded? The list of questions goes on and on, but the answers are yet to be answered.”

James Starnes, director of surface geology for the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality Office of Geology, recently published a paper on the quartzite.

“Hattiesburg Quartzite is a Middle Miocene age orthoquartzite known only from a few outcrops along the uplands overlooking the Homochitto River Valley near the Franklin/Amite County line in Mississippi,” he wrote. “It is characterized as hard, gray-colored, opal-cemented, siltstone to fine-grained sandstone that can contain dissolution vugs (hollowed-out places) that may be opal-filled.”

Havard and I found a boulder with an apparent vug, though we didn’t see any opal.

When the quartzite breaks, it makes smooth, conchoidal fractures, good for arrowheads.

Starnes said Janet Spillman and her son, Wesley Sturdivant, actually found a few Hattiesburg quartzite artifacts in gravel bars on Dry Creek near Rosetta in Amite County. Spillman posted photos on the Mississippi Gem and Mineral Society’s Facebook page.  

Starnes said the quartzite was extremely valuable for Native Americans in a region that was otherwise rock-poor. The main arrowhead material around here is chert gravel, which is poor quality.

“Having a rare bedrock outcrop in the area proved to be unbelievably fruitful,” he said. “But there’s a really, really deep mystery behind this.” Namely, why so few arrowheads made of the material?

Spillman and Sturdivant found the only known points made from the stone. Otherwise they were either traded to other tribes, or they rotted over time, Starnes speculated.

To quarry the rock, Native Americans used Sioux Quartzite, which comes from up north. It’s a smooth, hard stone that has a purplish hue when wet.

Not surprisingly, Havard has some of that, too.

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