Material Culture of Missouri River

“Sometimes during high water the Missouri River will carve away one of its banks like an old man turning out his pockets to bring things to light — scrapers and knives made of Knife River flint, hoes and squash knives made of bison bone, 19th century toy horses made of pewter or cast iron.

And U.S. Army Corps of Engineers staff archaeologists are there afterward to pick up the pieces, or at least to assess what’s been uncovered, the Capital Journal reported ( ).

Richard Harnois, the senior field archaeologist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/Omaha District’s Oahe Project Office, said he and field archaeologist Megan Maier work in an area from about Yankton to Bismarck, N.D. Though they might be called on for archaeological expertise anywhere in South Dakota, much of their work is along the Missouri River.


But their main job isn’t the relentless search for artifacts that people associate with archaeology, Harnois said, and the river’s habit of uncovering things can be a problem sometimes. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers simply doesn’t have the funds to do a systematic investigation every time the river turns over something interesting.

“We still have a problem with erosion along the river. It does give us a window into what’s there archaeologically,” Harnois said. “But our main objective isn’t the scientific inquiry, but trying to preserve this for the people.”

The main technique the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers uses to guard fragile locations, Harnois said, is placing rip-rap or armor along cutbacks or locations that are suffering erosion. In areas where water levels are stable, the Corps can also use willow plantings, but the wide fluctuations in the Missouri River reservoirs rule out plantings in some locations.

One thing that’s certain: The Missouri River valley is one of the more interesting features archaeologically in the region, Harnois and Maier say, for the same reason that it’s a recreational focus to this day.

“People now gravitate to the same areas for the same reasons that people for millennia have gravitated toward those areas — shade, shelter, resources,” Harnois said. “It provided a source of food and water. That’s the basis for prehistoric habitation is a water source.”

In addition, a river was an avenue of transport.

Harnois, whose special area of interest is historic archaeology, or delving into the past for which written records exist, said it’s well-known that the Missouri was the highway for fur trappers and traders to move goods up and down the river. But he said archaeological work suggests prehistoric trade was already bringing goods from far and wide to sites up and down the Missouri.”

Read the full article here.


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