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Lance Nixon, Published August 19 2013

Missouri River artifacts provide clues to the past

PIERRE, S.D. – 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 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 to pick up the pieces, or at least to assess what’s been uncovered.

Richard Harnois, senior field archaeologist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Omaha District’s Oahe Project Office, and field archaeologist Megan Maier work in an area from about Yankton, S.D., to Bismarck, and 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.

“We still have a problem with erosion along the river. It does give us a window into what’s there archaeologically,” Har-

nois said. “But our main objective isn’t the scientific inquiry, but trying to preserve this for the people.”

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.

In addition, a river was an avenue of transport.

It’s well-known that the Missouri was the highway for fur trappers and traders to move goods up and down the river, Harnois said.

“The Missouri was the I-90 of prehistoric times,” Harnois said.

Archaeologists know that because of the variety of materials from which projectile points and other tools are made.

A favorite was Knife River flint, quarried in ancient times in what is now North Dakota.

Other materials that might show up in the Missouri River’s prehistoric settlements include obsidian, a volcanic glass from locations such as the Yellowstone area that is rare but not unknown in the area; Bijou Hills quartzite, from a region farther south in South Dakota; and a material called Tongue River silicified sediment found in northwest South Dakota and southwest North Dakota.

Sadly, Harnois said, trained archaeologists are not the only ones looking for traces of the past. Part of Corps archaeologists’ job is to protect sites from looters and reclaim artifacts in cases where they catch looters.

“Our problem with (these artifacts) is that we don’t have any context. We don’t know where it came from and what other artifacts were next to it in the ground,” Harnois said.