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A passion for assembling collections

by RICHARD MASON Special to the Democrat-Gazette | August 4, 2019 at 1:50 a.m.

Since I'm a working geologist, focused on the earth's geologic history and the earth's minerals, I have shelves of mineral and rock specimens in my home and office. That's just the tip of the iceberg.

My serious collecting began when in my early teens. From conversations with farmers along the Ouachita River watershed, I found out that south Arkansas is laced with old Indian camps. That's when my first splurge of collecting sent me walking up and down rows in cotton fields near the river looking for arrowheads.

My display cases now have hundreds of arrowheads. When I left south Arkansas to attend the University of Arkansas, I continued, searching along the White River and adding to my collection.

When I was 14, I took five of the south Arkansas arrowheads, packed them up, and naively mailed them with a note where I found them to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The note said: "Please tell me which Indians made these arrowheads."

Believe it or not, in a few weeks I received my arrowheads back with a very nice letter telling me that four of them were made by relatively recent Caddo Indians, but one was much, much older. I later realized that arrowheads made by earlier Indians in south Arkansas could be distinguished by the shape and the fact that they were pre-pottery. These Indians didn't have the skills to produce pottery.

Here's a question for an anthropologist: There is a World Heritage site in northeastern Louisiana called Poverty Point, which has huge mounds made by prehistoric Indians carrying dirt in baskets. In the museum's online information, I noted the absence of any pottery.

There is a non-pottery Indian mound in Union County, another across the Ouachita River in Calhoun County, and a non-mound, non-pottery site in Bradley County at the mouth of Bangs Slough. Are all these non-pottery sites related to the misnamed Toltec mounds farther north in east Arkansas?

By the time I went off to college, I could rattle off the sites of at least a half-dozen old Indian villages.

Part of my work is to make maps of the sub-surface geologic formations for use in the search for oil and gas, and that gave me an interest in surface maps. Over the years, that interest has become almost an obsession to collect antique maps.

At first, I collected old Arkansas maps, but quickly found out that Arkansas didn't exist on maps before 1800. So if I wanted to collect earlier maps, they would be territorial maps, and you would not believe the multiple sources where I found them covering the Louisiana Purchase area of our country.

A vacation in the south of France turned up a pre-1800 Louisiana Purchase map in a local flea market, but by far the best came from the Map Room in London, from a source in New York City near Bloomingdale's, and from Santa Fe, N.M. I have 67 framed antique maps dating back to the early 1700s hanging in my office.

If you are a serious collector, you collect as you travel, and since I worked overseas for several years, I hauled back fossils, pottery, and minerals from several countries, including a large batch of beautiful gypsum-replaced seashells from the Libyan Desert. As I supervised drilling and coring of numerous oil and gas wells, that added large pieces of rock cores from these wells that contribute an "I'm an oilman" look to my office. Those, along with several trilobite fossils from Morocco, say "I'm a geologist. "

Vertis helped along the way by buying a set of Richard Timm wildlife prints at an auction in northwest Arkansas. She made a good bid, but framing the 31 signed prints nearly broke me.

There's more; I added to my collecting during vacations when we traveled to Belize, which is a collector's paradise, and my home display case has several excellent pieces of pre-Colombian Mayan artifacts.

A serious collector will never pass up an auction, especially if old stamps are on the block. And since I collected stamps when I was a teen, over the years I bought several albums, and have a sizable box containing thousands of stamps. I don't have a clue if these stamps are worth even checking out their value.

Then, as we traveled on vacation to New York City, I began to attend and bid at Sotheby's auctions. Some items sell for millions, but thousands of pre-Colombian artifacts sell for a few hundred dollars, and I have a display case to prove it.

But even though my display cases contain most of the objects that are valuable, I treasure the glass shelves along one wall in our dining room that has a wide variety of collected items, none of which have any real value to anyone except Vertis and me. Among them are pieces of broken cups from ancient Greece, clay net-fishing sinkers from the jungles of Belize, and assorted minerals such as amber, gypsum, and halite.

Every Arkansas geologist worth his salt will have quartz crystals. I collect what a plow or erosion uncovers, and have never dug or vandalized a historic site.

A true collector never stops collecting, and I catch myself scanning the ground every time I am in a historic or river bank area. But as Vertis will tell you, if something else comes in the front door, something else had better go out the back door.

Email Richard Mason at

Editorial on 08/04/2019

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