petrified wood part 1: search sites and results

W.C. McDANIEL : The chatter and splashing sounds of five rockhounds hiking down a crystal clear Tennessee creek were abruptly and loudly interrupted by one of those words that brings instant fear and awareness, “SNAKE.” The snake, quickly identified as a “Midland Water Snake,” was cornered and surrounded so it took the quickest and most direct way out, right between the legs of one those rockhounds. Jokes and comments were made and, just as quickly, the eyes and journey returned to the main objective—petrified wood. The visit to this creek was one of many collecting trips made to several sites over the course of the past several months. Those visits and creeks produced more gold medal specimens of petrified wood than Michael Phelps produced gold medals during the summer Olympics.

The following comments describe some of the collecting trips and locations.

Site 1 (Mississippi)
– This site was first visited and written about in 2004. That year, and subsequent years, the site consistently produced a large number of pieces, many over 100 pounds. However, in 2008 the finds were limited in size and quantity. In addition, there was evidence other people had been in the area. It needs some good hard rains and a break before returning to the area. No photographs from this site are published.

Site 2 (Mississippi) – This site was first visited and written about in 2004. That year the findings were limited when compared to Site 1. In addition, no follow up visits were made until this year. This year the search area was expanded to about 2 miles up and down the creek from our access point. In addition, our search methods were expanded to include much of the sandy bottom in the middle of creek and extensively probing with metal pointed sticks and listening for the distinct petrified wood clink. The expansion of the search area and methods produced a large number of big and good quality pieces of petrified wood.

Site 3 (Mississippi)
– This is a new site and was first explored in late winter. This area, located in the suburbs of Memphis, is a series of small to mid size creeks, some looking like a ditch. One of the nicest things about this location is that you can sleep later, stay later, and still be home by supper time. These sites were remarkable in the number, size, and quality of the collected pieces. Many pieces were located by probing with a metal stick in about 3-4 feet of waist deep muddy water. In many cases you had no idea what you were hauling up until it surfaced. An occasional iron concretion made this task a little more time consuming and at times disappointing. Fortunately there were a lot of good pieces that made this task worthwhile.

Site 4 (Tennessee)
– This was a new site for the author but other members of the group had collected at this site. The site, located in West Tennessee, is near where MAGS has collected fossils for many years. The creek was accessed through private property and was one of the smallest creeks searched during the year. The majority of the wood was in the 3-10 pound range with the largest reaching about 25 pounds. In addition this was the only site where fossils were also found, mostly sponge corals.


petrified wood part 2: collecting

W.C. McDaniel “Let’s go collect some petrified wood” is one my favorite phrases and collecting trips. “A field guide to collecting petrified wood” will take you along on one of those trips. The guide covers: where to look, how to search, what to look for, and concludes with some recommended collecting preparations and precautions.

Where to look?
In the South the two primary collecting locations are areas with flowing water such as creeks, rivers and gravel bars or pits. Most bars are found along creeks and most pits are usually private mining operations. What type of creeks will produced petrified wood is a frequently ask question. An initial way to assess a creek’s petrified wood potential is to stand on a bridge or overlook and see if one or more of the following features can be observed. If the creek looks promising look for a convenient access as sometimes that can be difficult and an obstacle if you find some big pieces that need to be hauled back to your vehicle.
• Creeks that have eroded down about 15-20 feet appear to the best producers of wood. However, this not an iron clad rule and each creek just needs to be checked.
• Is the water clear, flowing and shallow enough to walk? Clear water is not an absolute requirement but it sure helps in finding wood in the middle of the creek. Also flowing or moving water indicates the banks are being eroded away exposing
more wood.

Is the creek accessible via banks?
Check the vegetation and the slope of the banks. Banks that gradually slope upward from the surface are the best, however in many cases the top part of the bank may be steep for the first four or five feet.

How to search. Creek searching requires a commitment to stay focused and check everything that looks like wood and everything
that doesn’t look like wood. One of the best things, besides your eyes, to bring along is a good walking/probing stick with a metal tip, Petrified wood makes a distinct clink (glass like) noise when hit with metal. Wood can been found on both sides of the creek, in the middle, under water, sticking out of water, sticking out of the banks, lying exposed on bars and/or buried underwater in sand or clay deposits. Some of the best finds were not visible but were found by probing the bottom and responding to the “clink” sound of metal upon petrified wood.

What to look for.
• Color- The overwhelming majority of petrified wood found in the creeks of the south are the earth tone colors of cream, light to medium tans/browns and whitish. In addition some of the wood will be grayish and others will have rust/reddish stains. Wood that has been in the creek for a period of time may have black stains due to decayed organic material. The rust and black stains can be removed with a soaking in a weak solution of oxalic acid.
• Shape and size - The majority of petrified wood is going to look like real logs. Most wood will be more vertical (longer/taller) shaped than horizontal (short and wider), rarely will wood be wider that it is taller. Grains, crevices and holes usually run vertical. Some will have exposed crystals. Size does play some role, especially for large pieces which have almost no competition from other competitors. In addition size is not an absolute indicator of quality. This will remain subjective and determined by the preferences of each collector.

Some wannabes, impersonators and heartbreakers. The chief culprits are iron concretions, sandstone, clay, chert, real wood and limestone usually placed in the creek for erosion control. Most of these can be quickly assessed with a quick poke with your walking stick. If the material doesn’t make a clink (I wish I could say ‘clink’ here to illustrate the sound) then it is most likely not petrified wood. If you remain uncertain turn it over and check it out. A second opinion from your collecting partners is also a good idea.


• Check the weather the day of and the previous days for the area you are going. Creeks can significantly change during periods of rain. The Internet is a good source to check current and specific local information.
• The majority of the creeks are located in rural and woody areas. Check to make sure there are no active hunting seasons underway. If there are, delay your trip until the seasons are completed.
• Bring along a backpack (this is easier than carry a bucket in the creek bed), digging tools, change of clothes, especially shoes and socks, insect repellant, snacks and drinks. Leave your valuables at home or in a safe place. If you must take your keys and/or wallet place them in a water tight container. Remotes usually don’t work after a good soaking.
• A walking stick with metal end is a good multiple use tool. It can steady you, serve as a probe and if necessary fend off wild creatures of the creek and woods.