TIM MARSHALL’S PASSIONATE QUEST TO REVEAL THE SECRETS OF SMITH ISLAND’S ANCIENT PAST CONTINUES
Written by Joe Willey
Photography by Jay Fleming
The Chesapeake Bay has a long history. Just walking along its shores and marshes can bring you in contact with pieces of the past. Though the region is replete with shoreline, some spots are more vibrantly flooded with memories. These jewels of the bay are not sapphires or rubies but arrowheads and artifacts, and no one is better at finding them than Smith Islander Tim Marshall.
Marshall was born and has lived his whole life on Smith Island. Exhibiting an intimate knowledge of the island and its terrain, he knows where to find bits of the past that are deposited in the mud and sand of the shoreline. He has been hunting for American Indian artifacts for over 30 years, and the hunt for arrowheads and artifacts continues to fascinate him. He also shares his experience and keen eye by acting as a guide for visitors who are intrigued about the history of the bay and want to find their own fragments of history.
Erosion has depleted the acreage of Smith Island, but it has also proved to be a boon for artifact hunting. “The marsh shorelines used to be the forest, and all you’ll find is projectiles because that used to be the hunting land,” he says with his twangy Smith Island dialect. But he is not concerned that Smith Island will soon wash into the bay. “I know I won’t be here in 50 years, but this island will be here in 150 years.”
Marshall’s quest to find treasures from ancient civilizations was purely practical at first. “When there was nothing to do on the island, I tended to [hunt for arrowheads],” he said. But he is aware that his onetime walk through the marshy shoreline to fight boredom grew into a passion. He recognizes that the historical record can be elusive to document; as easily as something may wash up on the shore, it can also disappear. He knows that his collection is significant. “I’ve been out here, hunting it, finding it and saving it.”
Marshall displays more than 30 years of artifact hunting in cases in his small museum in the Smith Island town of Ewell. Each case beautifully displays a group of projectiles, carefully arranged with pieces fanning out in a nimbus of flint. With encyclopedic ease, he can show a visitor a spearpoint or arrowhead and quickly date the period in which it was used. His finds have been important and date back thousands of years, showing the migration of the early hunters and inhabitants from other regions who brought projectiles made of non-native stone.
Tim Marshall’s laid-back perseverance has captured artifacts of the past that others may have let wash away or settle back into the mud of the bay. He continues to capture the memories made of stone that were used for survival and now gives us a glimpse into the distant past. His finds have been a treasure. “It takes a lot to hunt this stuff,” he said, gesturing toward the arrowhead collection. “You have to repeatedly walk these shorelines, and I’ve walked them more than anyone.”