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Sandbar archaeology

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Published on: Jul. 2, 2006

Last revision: Nov. 29, 2010

the river whenever the water level falls low enough to expose sandbars and rock wing dikes. He is there on scorching summer days and in the dead of winter, sometimes rowing his johnboat around ice floes to get to prime collecting sites. For him, it’s all about the moment of discovery, and he likens it to the thrill of other kinds of hunting.

“You go into a state of heightened concentration where everything else is eliminated—your problems at home, the mosquitoes around your head. All of that is inconsequential when you have that buck in your sights or you are seeing something you have been seeking so long and hard. The thrill is indescribable.”

Some of Bassett’s thrills have been understandable if not describable. There was the day in 1995 when he discovered the skull of what he assumed was an ox. The horns measured 31 inches from tip to tip, and it looked old—really old.

Bassett took the monstrous skull to Professor Lee Lyman, chairman of the University of Missouri-Columbia Anthropology Department. Lyman identified the skull as that of a female Bison antiquus, a much larger relative of the modern American bison. Although big for a female, it was considerably smaller than the males of its species. This species went extinct during the last ice age.

Bassett was transported. He also was consumed with curiosity about how old his specimen was, so he paid $600 to have it carbon dated. The test showed his beast lived and died 13,000 to 14,000 years ago.

Such finds are not as uncommon as you might think. Mary Ball, of O’Fallon, found an even larger bison skull while arrowhead hunting on a sandbar near St. Louis in 2003.

The bison skull is Bassett’s biggest find to date, but not his favorite. That distinction belongs to what appears to be a sliver of fossilized bone that has been fashioned into a personal ornament of some sort. Along its jet-black length is a bas-relief pattern of circles and wavy curves. The precision of the design is amazing. Atop the artifact, partially eroded by time, is what might once have been a bird figure.

Neither Lyman nor anyone else Bassett has consulted can explain the artifact’s function or shed light on its age. What’s certain is the time and creative energy that some early artist poured into its creation. It fires Bassett’s imagination to think of the artist who invested precious time creating

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