Sandbar archaeology

By Jim Low | July 2, 2006
From Missouri Conservationist: Jul 2006

A hunter wanders absentmindedly across a vast, sandy expanse bordering the Missouri River, scanning a sparse landscape. He neither hurries nor lingers. The ducks he sought all have flown on south, so he kills time beachcombing. Time slips past him unnoticed.

A few yards ahead, the tips of what appears to be a broken tree branch poke from the sand. The hunter’s restless glance drifts across the weathered points several times as he approaches, then catches on one. The texture and shape don’t look like wood.

He changes course, bends and grasps the object. It is dense and cool to the touch. He lifts, and time slows to a crawl as a 2-foot section of elk antler emerges from the damp sand.

His eyes slide along the smooth, age-darkened surface of once-vital tissue, and in that instant, the flow of time changes direction. It begins to ebb, drawing the hunter with it. He experiences a slight shock, as if caught in a time warp that pulls him back across thousands of years.

How long has this bit of living history lain here, waiting to be discovered? When did the animal live? Where and how did it die? How long was the antler entombed in mud before the river’s shifting current exhumed it? Such are the questions and reveries of a sandbar archaeologist.

The Missouri River probably isn’t high on most people’s lists of places to hunt for fossils, arrowheads and other relics of the recent to ancient past. When you think about it, though, it’s perfectly logical.

Each year, the river and hundreds of tributaries between here and the Rocky Mountains carve into alluvial deposits laid down thousands, tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of years ago. Among the millions of tons of sand, gravel and mud are thousands of more interesting things, such as fossilized bones, Indian artifacts and the cargo of wrecked riverboats.

Many of those items make temporary stops in the Show-Me State on their way to the Gulf of Mexico. Removed from their original context, they have little value to professional archaeologists. But for a small cadre of confirmed Missouri River beachcombers, finding such items is a thrill on par with bagging a trophy whitetail or discovering a previously unknown painting by Leonardo da Vinci.

The quest for that moment of discovery has kept Kenny Bassett coming back to the river for 25 years. A confirmed beachcombing addict, the Columbia resident heads for 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 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 or Lyman at

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.

This Issue's Staff

Editor in Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair
Art Director - Cliff White
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Writer/editor - Tom Cwynar
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Designer - Susan Fine
Circulation - Laura Scheuler