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Today is December 18, 2018

Digging up the past

Jeff McCraw searches Mississippi’s rivers and creeks for insight into our state’s prehistoric life.

By Debbie Stringer

Digging up the past

 Jeff McCraw holds a partial mastodon rib, one of many exhibits in his mini musuem, The Artifact Shack, in Smith County.

One of Jeff McCraw’s hobbies is collecting seashells—but not at the seashore. Instead, McCraw finds plenty in Mississippi’s rivers, creeks and streams.

“Right down the road here,” the Smith County resident said, “if you drive over a bridge, you can look down at the bottom of the creek and just see seashells by the thousands.”

Seashells in an inland creek? Not only that, but McCraw sometimes finds shark teeth or other ancient marine fossils amongst the shells.

These are all that remain of the creatures that inhabited the shallow prehistoric sea that once covered most of Mississippi and the midwestern US. When the saltwaters receded millions of years ago, huge mammals—mastodons, giant bisons and the like—came to dominate the Mississippi landscape. McCraw collects their fossils too.

McCraw is equally passionate when it comes to hunting and researching prehistoric Native American artifacts, from points to pottery. He is a scrupulous hunter who avoids Native American mound sites, which remain sacred to the descendants of the builders and protected by federal law.

“I am pretty much an out-of-context artifact hunter,” he said. “I do hunt a field or site occasionally but I leave digging to the archaeologists. Just picking up an arrowhead is one thing, but if you go and start digging and messing with [a site], then you’re taking away valuable information to the scientific community.”

Nor does he sell artifacts or fossils, trespass on private land or hunt for them on public lands, where removing such items is restricted by law.

 

McCraw, a member of Southern Pine Electric, has no formal education in paleontology or archaeology; his knowledge stems from some 12 years of hunting and researching fossils and artifacts. Experience has taught him where to look for them, how to recognize them and where to get help in identifying them. (McCraw will tell you that finding artifacts is the easy part; figuring out what they were used for is more difficult, if not impossible.)

McCraw’s most fertile hunting grounds are river, creek and stream beds, where collecting is legal in Mississippi. There the combined forces of erosion and time wash away ancient sediments, eventually exposing long-buried fossils and artifacts. Often they settle into holes in hard surfaces beneath the water, McCraw has found.

“I spent two or three years, maybe four, digging out every hole on about a mile-long strip of Tallahala Creek, and in just about every hole there was an arrowhead or shark teeth,” he said.

“I’ve found things that were 2 feet deep with a machete, just by the sound of the metal hitting something different in that creek or river.”

One day while paddling down a creek, McCraw came upon a mound of clay protruding from the water. His hunch turned out to be correct: Ancient whale bones embedded in the mound had saved it from eroding into oblivion.

In 2007 McCraw made the first significant find of premodern whale in the state while canoeing the Chickasawhay River, in east Mississippi. He and nephew Kalab Deese excavated the bones from a bluff in Clarke County and donated them to the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science (MMNS), in Jackson.

McCraw has also made several discoveries of Basilosaurus, the 65-foot fossil whale commonly found in Mississippi. “It would have been the largest animal alive on earth about 40 million years ago,” McCraw said.

Another special find is the 32-inch beak-like rostrum, from an extinct sawfish, that McCraw excavated in Yazoo County.

Identifying some fossils can be tricky, so McCraw relies on help from George Phillips, curator of paleontology at MMNS.

“It’s a good partnership,” McCraw said. “They help me with identifications and I help them with a lot of donations of things important to Mississippi, and really to the fossil community as a whole.”

 

When his wife suggested the growing collection was becoming a bit much for the house, McCraw decided to convert an old, leaky storage shed into a mini museum in order to display it. Using salvaged lumber, he built a covered porch, reinforced the siding and added a bathroom. He spiffed up the interior, built display cases, installed track lighting and air conditioning, and dubbed his creation The Artifact Shack.

The Shack, as he calls it, is open free of charge to visitors and school groups. Inside, McCraw has carefully crafted stories of prehistoric Mississippi through the tangible evidence he has spent so many enjoyable hours collecting. Most of his finds are from the Oligocene and Eocene epochs, or roughly 23 million to 60 million years ago, when all but the northeastern corner of Mississippi was submerged in a shallow sea.

Nothing in the museum is for sale. The Artifact Shack is purely educational—and fun. McCraw enthusiastically shares with visitors not only what he has learned through years of collecting but also anecdotes about the curiosities on display.

On one shelf rests a single whale vertebrae nearly 10 inches in diameter. To the untrained eye, it looks more like a petrified stump. “Early settlers would find those things and use them to block up their houses. They’re fairly plentiful in certain areas where that geological formation is exposed. A lot of those bones and remains are found in Jasper County,” he said.

Visitors start their tour with a look at McCraw’s oldest fossils, including trilobites, sea biscuits, giant shark and crocodile teeth, shellfish and the imprint of an ancient redbud leaf in a rock.

Next come fossilized remains from ice age mammals including a bison, mastodon, ground sloth, tapir, bear and horse.

“These were the animals walking around Mississippi that some humans actually came in contact with and hunted. A few of these Native American artifacts were actually used to harvest, or to kill, some of these ice age animals,” McCraw said.

To drive home the point, his displays are designed to lead visitors from ice age fossils directly into Native American artifacts. Glass cases hold projectile points, grinding and nutting stones, cultivation tools, drill bits, awls and game balls—all made of stone.

One particular drill bit speaks to McCraw. “I used to be a machinist and I’ve broken many a drill bit, and that Native American drill, made of stone, broke exactly the way a steel drill bit would break if it’s under tension or in a bind. You can tell which way it was turning because of the way it broke,” he said.

Pieces of broken clay pots are decorated with designs incised or stamped by their makers’ hands. McCraw has yet to uncover an intact pot, so he purchased a few to complete his pottery display.

The most common question McCraw gets from kids who visit his museum concerns the shark teeth: How did sharks get to Smith County? Before explaining about Mississippi’s ancient sea, McCraw may joke about sharks swimming up rivers from the Gulf, or impress them with his fossilized shark poop—scientists call it coprolite.

McCraw believes all Mississippians should learn about their state’s geology and natural history. He hopes his museum can help make that fun. “Everybody, in my opinion, should know a little bit about their world around them,” he said.

The Artifact Shack, located at 6270 SCR 99, Bay Springs, is open by appointment only. Admission is free and groups are welcome. Owner Jeff McCraw also stages an annual fossil/artifact hunt for children at the site. For more information, contact him at 601-896-2429.

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