For years, former educator Lyle Sparkman has had an interest in archeology.

Sparkman spoke on the subject Monday at Newton County's Center for Seniors.

"My grandpa used to plow his fields with a horse-drawn plow," Sparkman said. "When I was 4-years-old, I'd go out in the field behind the plow and pick up arrowheads. We had a big turtle shell at the farmhouse, and I'd put the arrowheads in the turtle shell. I don't have the turtle shell anymore, but I still have the arrowheads."

Of such began a lifelong fascination with earlier peoples and the tools and artifacts they left behind.

Sparkman, current president of the Missouri Archaeological Association, remembers seeing a display for the group at the Ozark Empire Fair in Springfield when he was 11.

"I looked at the material they had there, and figured they didn't know I was a kid, so I took some of my lawn mowing money and sent in my membership," he said. "A half century later, I'm the president."

This led to more knowledge about how people lived before written histories were compiled.

"When I was in junior high, I had some 'killer' Indian reports," Sparkman said, "because I had the society publications to reference. I knew more than my teacher did! Not every junior high teacher has a kid talking about the Steed-Kisker focus in Kansas City."

This "focus," or "tribe" to put it in laymen's terms, lived in the area that was to become Kansas City between 900 to 1400 AD.

The purpose of the association, Sparkman said, hopes to spur interest in ancient peoples and how they lived.
"Even though the society has accepted peoples' collections, we're not interested in the collections," he said.

"Instead, we're interested about the people in the context they lived, the pollen in the soil, weather conditions, what they ate — it's an ongoing study. What we discourage is people treasure hunting, digging for arrowheads. It's perfectly legal to pick up arrowheads on your own property, on private property, and we're glad for that. Those are yours to keep. But it's not legal to dig for arrowheads at a state park, for instance."

Those who find arrowheads are asked to contact the society and let them know the location. This is so the information can be entered into a computer database and shared with archaeologists who track the movements of ancient peoples, not so society members can hunt for arrowheads on private property, he stressed.

Sparkman brought some arrowheads and spear points from his collection, shared with seniors knowledge of previous cultures in Missouri's history, identified items from people's collections, and gave away posters from the archaeological society. He also took some time to answer questions from the audience.

Missouri has about 12,000 years of occupation, Sparkman said. Many people are aware of the Osage, a group which came to Missouri about 300 years ago. His focus in Monday's talk was the other 11,000 or so years.

For instance, there was once a people called the Neosho, who lived in the area after the Caddo culture left, but before the Osage. Unlike the earlier Caddo, this group left no descendants, and vanished in about 1600, 100 years before the advent of the Osage.

"They used triangular tools like arrowpoints and were bison hunters," he said. "Why healthy bison hunters disappeared is a mystery. The Osage arrived about 1700, so there's a 100 year gap of no people, just game."
One explanation may be when Hernando de Soto invaded the Mississippi valley in the 1540s, he brought with him smallpox. The strain was so virulent, it wiped out the Tunica people living in Arkansas and Louisiana, Sparkman said. The strain traveled upriver and infected the Neosho tribe, who had no natural resistance to the disease.
"When the Ozark arrived, they were living in a land of ghosts that were felled by a killer that you could not see," he said. "[The smallpox theory] is a possibility."

While Sparkman brought some "lithics" — literally, things made from rocks — to the center, he said he doesn't have a vast collection of artifacts.

"The things I have in my collection that are important are on loan to the University of Missouri," he said. "I haven't been a collector since I was young. I don't have a pile of artifacts. Most people I talk to have more artifacts than I do."