Sandbar archaeology

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Published on: Jul. 2, 2006

Last revision: Nov. 29, 2010

an object of lasting beauty.

The range of artifacts that turns up on sandbars defies description. One day, you might find a clay tobacco pipe. The next, petrified wood or a beautifully fluted Clovis spear point. Bassett has a heavy, 5-inch flint blade that Lyman identified as a hoe blade.

One of Bassett’s beach-combing friends found a fossilized bear skull in the Kansas City area, and John Marston, of Easley, brought a massive section of bone to Lyman for identification. He said it belonged to a mastodon or a wooly mammoth. Again, this had to come from about 10,000 years ago, during the last ice age.

Lyman estimated the age of the elk antler mentioned earlier at 6,000 to 8,000 years, based on its shape. The flattened forks and multiple points are between those of modern elk and the Eurasian red deer from which North American elk descended.

Not all the objects that turn up on sandbars are of prehistoric origin. Hartsburg resident Darrell Bennett found a small ceramic bottle bearing the inscription “Mercury.” This might have come from a cache of medical supplies in the hold of a 19th-century riverboat. Dozens of wrecked cargo ships are buried beneath crop fields where the river once flowed. Bennett has found massive padlocks, apothecary bottles, marble doorknobs and other everyday items that document bygone days, along with a number of bison horns.

You won’t find an arrowhead every time you visit the river, but the occasional find, along with the river’s incomparable scenery and opportunities to see eagles and other wildlife, make visits well worthwhile.

“Thousand-year-old objects aren’t supposed to be easy to find,” said Bassett, “but with a little bit of faith and enough time given to the task, you know that moment of discovery is going to appear again. On the Missouri River you know exciting things are out there. You have to keep going, because Old Man River is going to bury them again, maybe forever.”

The Who’s Who and What’s What of Archaeology

Scientists who study the buried remains of humans and their culture are called archaeologists. Those who study the remains of animals are paleontologists. A fossil is an object whose original material has been replaced by mineral deposits. Any partially fossilized object under 10,000 years old is considered a “subfossil.”

Sandbar Archaeology and the Law

Picking up artifacts isn’t always legal. In some cases, state or federal laws protect archaeological sites’ cultural and scientific value. However, this value is greatly diminished after erosion removes an object from its original location. Arrowheads and bison skulls found on sandbars are still of interest to those who study such things, but their scientific value is minimal.

Brant Vollman, an archaeologist with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, said that while it may be legal to collect artifacts on river sandbars, collectors must be careful not to wander onto private land. The Missouri River is public property, but public ownership extends only as high as the ordinary low-water mark on banks.

Any land above the point where trees and other permanent vegetation grow is part of the shore. You need permission to go there unless it happens to be a conservation area or other public land. While permission is not needed to go on public land, artifacts found on state-owned land are considered property of the state. Many permanent islands also are private property.

Vollman also noted that Missouri law protects shipwrecks. Furthermore, it is illegal to knowingly disturb human remains, so known burial sites are off-limits.

Vollman and University of Missouri archaeologist Lee Lyman encourage people to report significant finds and bring river artifacts of all kinds to them for examination. Often they can tell the owners what animals or people they came from and approximately how old they are.

You can reach Vollman at brant.vollman@dnr.mo.gov or Lyman at LymanR@missouri.edu.

Sandbar How-to

Experienced sandbar archaeologists offer the following tips:

  • Go when the water is low, exposing lots of river bottom.
  • Visit the river after big floods, especially in winter, when ice floes plow up sandbars and river banks.
  • Check the upstream faces of wing dikes and other spots where flowing water slows down and drops objects.
  • Look around beached stumps and other large objects.
  • Look for artifacts when the hunting or fishing is slow or to stretch your legs during float trips.

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