LOWER TOWNSHIP — A coastal storm exposed it, then a wave almost washed it away, but Elizabeth Pellini reached down just in time.
Pellini knew right away the small black spear-point, made of a stone called chert, was something special. She thought she was looking at something historical as she combed a Delaware Bay beach after the recent storm.
Actually, it was prehistorical. The Dennis Township resident was the first person to look at it in at least 4,000 years.
“I was thinking 15th century or 14th century. I never imagined it was as old as it is. That was unfathomable. Usually I collect pebbles, shells and beach glass,” Pellini said.
Gregory Lattanzi, assistant curator of the Bureau of Archaeology and Ethnography at the New Jersey State Museum, has dated it at 4,000 to 6,000 years old. It was made before the bow and arrow were invented, and was likely attached to a wooden shaft and thrown like a spear. Lattanzi said it predates the Lenni Lenape who were here when Europeans arrived.
“It could have been the ancestors of the Lenape,” Lattanzi said.
Pellini went online to learn all about the Archaic Period, from 3,000 to 10,000 years ago, to find out who made it.
“I wish I could see the face of whoever was looking down carving it. I thought, who can I be to pick it up? I thought about letting it go,” she said.
That was only a fleeting thought. She won’t be throwing it back into the bay at Town Bank where she found it, although she is looking into donating it to a museum.
Lattanzi said it’s a “Brewerton corner notched point” that may have been used to hunt small game or spear fish. It may have been propelled with an atlatl, a spear-throwing device native Americans used.
It’s a near-perfect specimen, according to Lattanzi, because it was probably protected in the ground for centuries. Even though found in the bay, it shows no signs of being washed around by rivers or tides. Lattanzi noted during colder times more of the world’s water was tied up in ice and the ocean was much farther out. Indian sites, once on dry ground, are now under water and coastal storms can churn them up. He’s had several calls about Indian artifacts found on the beaches following the recent storm and often gets them during beach-replenishment projects.
“There’s no question. It’s definitely because of this. In Paleo-Indian times, you could go out 100 kilometers (more than 62 miles) and you still couldn’t see the shoreline,” said Lattanzi, who also serves as president of the Archaeological Society of New Jersey.
Pellini has theorized with colleagues at her Avalon office, where she works in interior design, about what sort of people made it. They figure they were people who were “cold and hungry.”
Not necessarily so. The world was getting warmer. The ice was melting. The pine-spruce forests were switching over to deciduous trees like oak and hickory, which produce acorns and gave rise to more game to hunt, such as white-tailed deer, passenger pigeons, black bear and turkey. At the shore there were numerous fishery resources for tribes of hunter-gatherers to exploit. There was also an explosion of different types of stone tools to go after these resources.
Pellini, who walks the beaches partly to get interior design ideas, marvels at the perfect balance of the spear-point, and how heavy it seems even though it is so small.
“At first I was thinking, ‘Can this be real?’ It looks too perfect, almost.”
She immediately showed it to two construction workers building a house nearby and a neighbor walking his dog. She got back to the car to show it to her daughter Liza, 14, who had stayed there on her phone while her mom walked the beach.
“Liza said, ‘That’s not real.’ She wasn’t real excited. She went back to her phone,” Pellini recalled.
Pellini’s older daughter, Ava, 21, looked online and found stories about others who discovered native-American artifacts on the beaches, including a 10-year-old Virginia boy who found a 10,000-year-old Paleo-Indian spear-point on Long Beach Island in 2014. This research led her to Lattanzi, and she sent him pictures.
“He said normally people dig for something like this. It’s quite unusual to find it wash up at your feet. I guess the storm eroded where it had been laying. I thought, how cool,” Pellini said.
Lattanzi logged it on a state map of where artifacts are found and got to work educating Pellini. He considers it his duty to fan the flames of the passion such a find can ignite.
“It’s one of the best things about my job as a civil servant,” Lattanzi said.
He almost never got the call. It was still windy that day. There were waves on the bay. Pellini had one hand full of beach stones, and the other held tangled fishing line she collects and throws in the trash. She saw it only for a fleeting moment and made the decision.
“I was afraid the next wave would take it away,” she said.
In a town settled by whalers in the 17th century, Pellini had grabbed more than history. She held in her hand pre-history.