Sandbar archaeology

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