Unearthing Relics with Fossil Hunter Gary Nelson

Gary Nelson
Gary Nelson holds a rare woolly mammoth scapula that he found locally. He uses the six-wheel amphibious craft in the background to scout new discoveries. PHOTO BY JULIET JARMOSCO

Rain pummels the vast tracts of cornfields near Gary Nelson’s home in tiny Birmingham, Iowa. The blurred flat fields roll on as far as the eye can see, mingling with woods and creeks that Nelson experiences in a different way than do most of the farmers and townspeople around here: through the eyes of the prehistoric Sauk and Fox Indians who inhabited these lands for millennia.

Nelson has scooped up some 4,000 of their arrowheads, 200 axes, and 10 “Holy Grail pieces,” as he calls them, in 35 years as an artifact hunter. He has found rare Clovis spear tips and a woolly mammoth tooth, items for which collectors will pay thousands. A few of Nelson’s finds date back 13,500 years.

Sitting at his kitchen table, Nelson tells me he receives messages in his dreams from ancient hunters directing him to specific locations where their tools and weapons can be found. He claims to be able to sense “a power” in the artifacts. “You can feel it when you touch this stuff,” he says.

gary nelson
Gary Nelson displays some of his local discoveries.

Nelson has pored over most of the fields and streams of Van Buren County, nearly always finding booty. In June 2008, when the rivers flooded and brought the banks up, he collected an astonishing 175 arrowheads in one day. “I’ve hunted most everything out of here,” he says. “I’ve deleted all these fields.”

He keeps most of the valuable pieces for himself, while he sells a few arrowheads from his roadside thrift shop next door.

At 53, Gary Nelson often sounds like an excitable boy—albeit a stubble-cheeked one—as he recounts his tales of discovery, which gush out, wind this way and that, meander and surge in unexpected directions, covering thousands of miles of footsteps through a county of just 500 square miles.

But the physical effort required has taken its toll. “I’ve got the body of a 98-year-old,” Nelson laments, and recent experience has borne him out.

As he was prepping for this interview, laying out his display cases of mounted arrowheads and Prehistoric American magazines opened up to his articles (one showing a pictorial of his prize 4,000-year-old Keokuk slant groove axe), his anxious excitement got the best of him. He felt a painful pinching in his chest. A trip to Van Buren County Hospital revealed a heart murmur. “When I bring this stuff out it really amps me up,” he explains. (He has since gotten a clean bill of health.)

Nelson’s new two-story home, which he designed, is a stone’s throw from Birmingham’s lone traffic signal. The town is one square mile and has a population of 441.

With its vaulted ceilings built of knotty pine by local Amish, the spacious room has the woodsy feel of a lodge. Nelson’s varied passions are displayed on walls and tabletops: a Pleistocene-period musk ox skull, a woolly mammoth scapula, a mounted deer head, ceremonial African masks, a shark’s jaw, a mounted three-foot-long Asian Carp, and an Amazon rainforest alligator hat. Somehow, too, there’s a replica Stradivarius violin. In the loft at the top of a spiral staircase is Nelson’s igloo-shaped bedroom he constructed out of hog panels.

A stem-winder accompanies just about all of Nelson’s artifacts, which he eagerly tells, seamlessly switching to another story when necessary to make a point. He pauses to indicate an odd-looking rock-like object on a nearby table. “When I saw that, well, it was either a mammoth tooth or a Walmart tennis shoe,” he laughs.

gary nelson
Gary wears his Amazonian rainforest alligator hat. (photo by Warren Goldie)

In the center of the room is a regulation-height basketball hoop, though it’s hard to imagine Nelson shooting free throws amid all the treasure. “I just … like it,” he says simply. End of story. Nelson’s uniqueness dominates every corner of the fascinating man-cave, which could pass for a small museum, or maybe Indiana Jones’s den.

Gary Nelson grew up in Fairfield, Iowa, 12 miles north, moving with his family to Van Buren County when he was 11. Watching his dad pick up arrowheads and send them skipping across a local pond spawned Nelson’s obsession. His first hunt took him through fields of waist-high soybeans into rocky washouts where he discovered arrowheads and axe heads laying in the grass for the picking. “I took them and showed them to my dad,” he recalls, the excitement evident in his voice.

After a revelatory dream, Nelson will load his Argo six-wheel amphibious craft onto the flat-bed and drive out on the hunt. “I find them just like they appeared to me,” he says. He often videotapes his river walks and uploads the POV footage, along with commentary, to a YouTube channel.

Right now he’s gripping a massive woolly mammoth scapula when his face brightens suddenly. “I know why I got the palpitations,” he says. Every event hides a deeper truth, and this one is about his friend Rob Taylor, who died of a heart attack. Nelson says the close friendship had “extended” the ailment to himself.

Maybe so. One never knows. Personally, I’m caught up in imagining a day that begins with a dream-time dialogue with a 4,000-year-old Indian and ends up with a YouTube video.

To Gary Nelson, it all makes perfect sense. This Iowa life of his, in which he works as a house painter from Monday to Saturday, topped by that precious adventure day at the end—this life that could have been routine and predictable, Nelson has infused with ways to travel to other times and experience other peoples.

Like the old Iowa where Chief Keokuk and his men trekked the prairie grasses, Gary Nelson has found his own means of discovery and adventure. When he’s not hunting, or painting, or making wine or riding his motorcycles, Nelson may be trying to divine the meaning of the notches on a Gorget pendant, those minute tally marks spaced exactly 1/16th of an inch apart, whose purpose continues to stump archeologists. (The answer came in a dream: “It’s a calendar.”)

Gazing out at the fields, Nelson travels back in time to a land where painted men stealthily tracked massive animals, a place strikingly at odds with the endless, uniform tabletop of industrial corn and soybean farms most people see here.

Hopefully, going forward, Gary Nelson will be able to tamp down his excitement to more manageable and healthier levels, for more Holy Grail finds may await him out there. “I want to find the claw of a three-toed sloth,” he says with real hunger in his voice. “The ultimate would be a woolly mammoth shoulder blade with a Clovis point still stuck in it.”

I nod, feeling that strong desire. Perhaps he’ll find those things. Maybe the precise location will announce itself in the wee hours one morning as a whisper from a long-gone hunter. After spending some time with Gary Nelson, one can believe it.

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