Define: Arrowhead

ar·row·head

Dictionary result for arrowhead

/ˈerōˌhed/nounnoun: arrowhead; plural noun: arrowheads

  1. 1.the pointed end of an arrow.
    • a mark or sign resembling an arrowhead.
  2. 2.an aquatic or semiaquatic plant with arrow-shaped leaves and three-petaled white flowers.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever found an arrowhead…..If you’re reading this article, the chances are really high that you’ve found one. Or two. Or hundreds. But how many arrowheads have you found? The answer might surprise a lot of casual “arrowhead” collectors.

Contrary to popular belief, every rock that has been shaped by Native American hands into a projectile point is not an arrowhead. And the explanation makes perfect sense – in order for an arrow to fly, the rock on the end of it can’t be very big.


The maximum cast of the bow determines the maximum weight of the point. This is how we know that certain “arrowheads” can not really have been used on an arrow, at least not to any good effect. A general rule of thumb is that a stone arrowhead will be less than 1 1/2-x-3/4-inch in dimensions and will generally weigh less than one ounce. Larger “arrowheads” probably would have been spear, dart, or knife tips. –The Office of the State Archaeologist, University of Iowa

This photo shows a progression of point types from Paleo to Woodland time periods. Notice the distinct shape changes as the hunters’ needs and technologies shifted. The black line represents an approximately transition to the bow and arrow technology.

According to the commonly accepted theory, bow and arrow technology was not introduced and practiced in North America until approximately 4000 years ago (or later) – and projectile point typology agrees. The ancient art known as archery, however, is thought to be much older throughout the prehistoric world. The larger point types of the Paleo and Archaic time periods are more likely to have been used as knives and spear points. In his book “Points and Blades of the Coastal Plain”, John Powell concludes that the bow and arrow made it’s appearance in the Woodland time period (2500-1,000 B.P.).

“While the atlatl persisted as the primary weapon, the bow and arrow and the small arrowheads used therewith made their appearance in the region during the Woodland era. The distinction between forms used as projectile points and those made for cutting, thrusting or stabbing became increasingly striking during this time. Eventually, knives and spears designed for utilitarian use declined radically in numbers and distribution; at the same time, large blades and bladelike forms intended for strictly ceremonial or mortuary functions began to appear in ever increasing quantities.” — John Powell

A collection of the Hernando Point Type – commonly thought to be some of the first “arrowheads”.

The size of the game mattered, too. The early humans that were facing off against a Mastodon would have required much larger ammunition than the hunters chasing a deer 10,000 years later.

Regardless of what we believe to be true, one fact is concrete – none of us were here to know for sure! But, using basic science and the theory of deduction, it’s reasonable to conclude that “arrowheads” are the smaller versions of what we find.

However, keep this in mind: two competing truths can exist. In this case, an arrowhead may just be a blanket adjective, much like the term “Coke” is commonly used in the South to describe any carbonated drink. And, as the keeper of the artifact, I think you can call it whatever you want – you just might be wrong.

Dustin Dowdy