By Deb Weissler
In a region where sea level is sometimes measured in inches rather than feet, Mathews County is the southernmost tip of Virginia’s Middle Peninsula. Sandwiched between the Northern Neck and the Virginia Peninsula, Mathews is surrounded almost completely by water. Its strands of beaches have been formed by tides, legendary storms, erosion, and sea level rise. With more than 200 miles of shoreline, three tidal rivers, and innumerable navigable creeks and canals, the county is a boater’s and beachcomber’s dream.
Some beaches are accessible by foot, car, or bike; others must be reached by boat, kayak, or other watercraft. All are worth the time or effort, because unless it is a holiday or weekend, you are often guaranteed having the beach entirely to yourself!
Discarded by man, caressed and scoured by sand and sea, and tossed about by storm tides, a treasure trove awaits the patient beachcomber. When winter doldrums descend, Atlantic-spawned nor’easters churn the Chesapeake Bay into froth and wash ashore sea glass, arrowheads, fossilized shark teeth, and even remnants of our colonial past.
I have been hunting the bay’s lower western shore for almost a decade and my home is filled with an assortment of finds I’ve pocketed or dragged home over the years.
Sliver of aqua glass in the wash
So where do all these treasures come from? It’s quite literally archeology in a bottle. For centuries, glass has been tossed overboard from boats, thrown from wharves and docks, pitched into bonfires, or sunk in shipwrecks. Whiskey, soda, wine, and beer bottles, snuff jars, patent medicine and bitters bottles, inkwells, insulators, marbles, and ceramics by the ton have found their way into the relatively shallow waters of the bay.
If a storm has been generous, the beach is littered with new and old glass alike; hand-blown glass dating as far back to the 17th century and blown or molded glass in a rainbow of colors. A recent October nor’easter on the heels of a king tide yielded a mother lode of glass that clattered and tinkled over pebbles and shells as the retreating tide reclaimed its treasures. A frosted bottle top, a glass stopper, and a chunk of bonfire glass lay scattered at the high tide mark.
Occasionally a bottle will survive its journey ashore intact, protected by the muck in which it was buried. A rare one washes up as pristine as the day it was tossed. Mostly they arrive stained, chipped, or frosty and often covered with barnacles and oyster spat. Davis OK Baking Powder once came packaged in glass bottles with glass stoppers. These are frequently found, broken and whole, in a lovely pale shade of aqua, and bubbles within the glass indicate the bottles were made in the early 1900s.
Rare 18th-century black glass is often overlooked by novice sea glass hunters, a reminder of the Chesapeake Bay’s history as a vital artery to America’s commerce. Primarily containers for rum and medicinals, when held up to the light black glass ranges from deep olive green to dark amber, courtesy of the iron oxide used to prevent spoilage and strengthen the bottles.
As sea levels rise, community replenishment covers over old beaches, and jetties and revetments change the flow of littoral currents that starve beaches of sand downstream, sea glass is buried deeper or diverted elsewhere. In recent years, the amount of sea glass has declined as frequent tidal flooding has eroded Mathews’ strands of beaches.
I time my walks at low tide in hopes of finding pieces of glass to add to my collection. I no longer frown at the pieces of new broken glass littering the shore. Instead, I turn their sharp edges down and grind them into the sand. When the next storm tide rakes the beach, perhaps it will take these pieces seaward to be tumbled, polished, and frosted to be tossed upon a future shore for another to find and treasure.
Morrow Mountain quartzite spear point found on Aarons Beach
The day I found my first arrowhead was a powerful experience. As it lay in the palm of my hand, I was overwhelmed with questions: where did it come from, how old was it, and who made it? Like finding buried treasure, the stemmed point was a link to our distant past.
Virginia is rich in lithic relics. Some are crudely fashioned; others are works of art. There is much more to the story of Virginia’s historical past than those first encounters between Native Americans and early English colonists. Our past stretches back to the last great ice age, the glacial maximum, when the Laurentide ice sheet covered much of Canada and a good deal of the northern U.S., some 12,000 years ago, and sea levels were more than 300-400 feet lower than today.
In situ Kirk arrowhead on Haven Beach, prehistoric stone fishing net weight
Early coastal inhabitants camped on low terraces beside rivers and streams, places where game came to water and feed. The bounties of the sea supplemented their hunting. They used a variety of stone tools—projectile points, knives, scrapers, axes, hammers, mortar and pestles, drills, mullers, and a host of other implements.
As the climate warmed, sea levels rose, forcing coastal inhabitants inland. Many of the large fauna became extinct, replaced by smaller game that required a variety of projectile points. By 700 AD in North America, the bow and arrow began replacing large spear points and atlatls for hunting and warfare. By identifying a point, one can reasonably date how old it may be.
So how do you find Native relics? The answer may quite simply be at your feet. As sea levels have risen, ancient river channels yield up evidence of ancient inhabitance. Walks along the Chesapeake Bay’s beaches after storms have yielded Native American artifacts washed ashore from ancient paleo channels long under water that continue to be scoured below by the tides.
Some coastal artifact hunters have amassed collections of arrowheads that number into the thousands. Others have found just a handful. Most are made of quartzite and white quartz, but some are made of materials clearly imported from other regions in Virginia and as far away as the Tennessee Valley. It is these finds, some dating back 8,000 years or more, that provide evidence that oceans, rivers, and bays, once considered obstacles by modern archaeologists, may have served as early man’s highways instead.
Fossilized bison molar
The twice daily inundation of high tides strews the beach with detritus, some of it eons old. This is fossil country also, and while the views across the Bay are stunning, a fossil hunter’s eyes are cast downward, searching for elusive signs of fossilized shark teeth, bison teeth, mastodon tusk, whale bone, and bivalve shells.
Most fossil shark teeth here are neither large nor rare and it takes patience and a calibrated eye to spot them. Some of the nicest are no larger than the head of a tack and easily overlooked while you search for something larger. With great variation in size, shape, and color, it takes a bit of detective work to identify your finds. Fossilized teeth of bison and mastodon provide evidence of the rich flora and fauna that once inhabited this coastal region.
With well-known fossil formations such as Westmoreland State Park, York River State Park’s Fossil beach, and Maryland’s Calvert Cliffs State Park within a day’s drive, beachcombers are often unaware of the treasures just lying feet from their own back doors.
Haven Beach at low tide with winds out of the northeast.
Mathews’ beaches offer a variety of topography, from low sandy dunes to broad stretches of marsh and mudflats. Haven Beach is popular with both sea glass and arrowhead hunters. It is the only beach with public restrooms and is one of the launch points for the Mathews Blueways Water Trail.
Colonial-era clay pipes found on Haven Beach
Aaron’s Beach is one of the lesser known beaches in the county and a prime birdwatching beach along the Atlantic Flyway. I have found numerous arrowheads, stone fishing net weights, fossils, and even a 17th century clay pipe. Bethel Beach is home to the region’s piping plovers and sections of it are marked off during mating season.
Offshore, you can catch a glimpse of Wolf Trap Lighthouse, a caisson lighthouse built in 1894 and located mid-bay. At the southern tip of Mathews lies New Point Comfort. Offshore lies the New Point Comfort Lighthouse and the delightful island beach Rigby Island, known simply as The Island. Accessible by boat or watercraft, its sand dunes, shallow swimming areas, and great beachcombing is especially popular on weekends during warm weather. You can anchor your boat offshore and wade in.
Crab pot buoys on Gwynn’s Isand, Wolf Trap Light in mid bay, New Point Comfort observation platform
Begin your visit at the Mathews Visitor Center, located on Main Street inside the former Sibley’s General Store. Here’s your source for maps, brochures, and area information. More than 60 local artists are featured among the center’s vast collection of gifts, books, historical exhibits, and educational displays.
There are numerous bed & breakfasts, hotels, and rental cottages in both Mathews County and neighboring Gloucester County. The region hosts a number of festivals and events that attract visitors from all over. From April through October a weekend farmers market offers fresh produce, organic meats, herbs, breads, plants, and crafts on the village green.
The popular Tour de Chesapeake is a weekend cycling event in May that offers a casual, laid-back weekend offering fully supported flat tour routes, delicious food, music, rest stops, great scenery, and historical sites. The event is topped off with a seafood feast and party at Williams Wharf.
Mathews is home to a number of artists attracted by the beauty of the Chesapeake Bay. Thanksgiving weekend is the annual Mathews Open Studio tour, which opens up the homes of local artists for tours and opportunities to purchase one-of-a-kind art in a variety of media.
Other notable events include Gloucester’s popular Daffodil Festival (early April), Virginia Garden Club Homes Tours (late April), Gloucester Wine Festival at world-renowned Brent & Becky’s Bulbs (September), Blues & Brew music and craft beer festival (October), and the famous Urbanna Oyster Festival (first weekend in November) in nearby Urbanna, Virginia.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine January/February 2020 issue.