- A great way to spend a post-flood summer.
- The Missouri River is a conveyor belt for fossils and artifacts.
- Finding bits of the past is like stepping onto a time machine.
By Jim Low
A wetter-than-average spring has the Missouri River bank-full today, but it’s only a matter of time until it falls to summer levels, exposing hundreds of sandbars or, as I like to think of them, time machines.
During spring floods, the Missouri River and its thousands of tributaries carve away at geological deposits between the Rocky Mountains and St. Louis.
It digs out bones of long-extinct animals, collects artifacts from Indian camps and unearths shark teeth that fell to the bottom of the inland sea that once divided our continent in two. Along the way, it also plucks trade goods from the rotting hulls of wrecked steam ships and objects whose origins and functions are mysteries.
Discovering an arrowhead or a huge leg bone triggers a welter of questions and speculation.
Was the animal killed by a hunter or a saber-toothed tiger?
Who made the arrowhead? How did he or she lose it?
Was it carried to this spot in the vitals of a deer… or perhaps a mastodon??
The result is a pleasant sort of temporal vertigo.
One moment you have both feet planted firmly in the present. Then, in an instant, the currents of time are tugging you back to the Pleistocene period and beyond.
This year’s natural exhibit of historical artifacts is being arranged right now beneath the mocha-colored waters of the Big Muddy. When it opens, admission will be free to anyone with a kayak, canoe or motor boat.
The Missouri Department of Conservation maintains dozens of river accesses at convenient intervals, making it easy to plan an expedition. The exhibit changes every time the river overtops sandbars and islands, and the first explorers get their pick of newly deposited prizes.
Sandbar archaeology has a small but dedicated following in Missouri.
The holy grail of this group is a skull of a Bison antiquus. These huge grazers were 25 percent larger than modern bison and had horns a yard across.
Every few years, a photo of a proud beachcomber displaying such a treasure appears in a river town’s newspaper. My own personal best find was the topmost 1/3 of an elk antler.
I nearly walked past it, because only one eroded tine poked a few inches above the level surface of the sandbar. At first, I thought it was a stick of wood. Then I noticed that it had a hollow core and looked as if it had been gnawed by a rodent, which made me think of antlers. Imagine my awe when I pulled on it and a massive, 2-foot end portion of an enormous antler emerged from the sand. The whole antler likely would have had 7 points.
Lee Lyman, then a professor of archaeology at the University of Missouri, identified my antler fragment as coming from an elk.
North American elk are descended from Eurasian red deer that crossed the Bering Land Bridge into North America during the last ice age. The pattern of forking and slightly webbed junctions are intermediate between the typical antler shape of ancient red deer and modern-day elk.
Based on the degree of divergence from red deer, he estimated that my specimen was 7,000 to 8,000 years old.
Aside from Bison antiquus skulls – which are, let’s face it, unbeatable – the coolest thing I ever saw rescued from a sandbar was an intricately carved piece of personal ornamentation.
Lyman identified it as a robe fastener.
It was made from half of a turkey wing bone split lengthwise. It was jet black with age. The carving was exquisite in its detail and symmetry. What I wouldn’t give to know the story of this piece of art!
Pillaging artifacts and fossils from archaeological sites would be both unethical and illegal. However, once the river washes objects away from their original locations, they lose their geologic and geographic contexts, greatly reducing their usefulness in unraveling the history they represent.
For this reason, items found on sandbars are fair game for collectors.
If no one picks them up, they will only be washed downstream – and probably reburied forever – by the next flood. The exception is human remains, which must be reported to law-enforcement officials, even if they appear to be very old.
Artifacts found on the river are not entirely without scientific value and professional archaeologists take a lively interest in amateur finds.
If you make an interesting discovery, contact the archaeology faculty at the nearest university or the Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ State Historic Preservation Office. They can provide fascinating insights about its identity and origins. Then you can legitimately say you have added to the body of archaeological knowledge.