Among the things that could come out of this year’s flooding on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers might be some interesting objects or sites from the past.

The Chair of the University of Missouri’s Department of Anthropology says the high, fast-flowing water could turn up some interesting archaeological or anthropological finds. Professor R. Lee Lyman says anywhere the river runs, it can uncover things like animal bones, native villages or even riverboat wrecks. That does not require flooding; the usual flow of a river or stream can erode away the bank and reveal interesting things. Floods cover more land not usually touched by flows, however, creating opportunities for things to turn up in areas they might not otherwise.

Professor R. Lee Lyman with 13,500 to 14,000 year-old bison skull. Credit: Chris Detrick

Some people actively go out looking for such things when water recedes. Professor Lyman knows a couple of people who work on the MU campus that regularly “beach comb,” as they call it, and bring things back to him to be examined. One exciting find turned up in the mid-1990s, when a campus employee brought in a bison skull that was later radiocarbon dated to be between 13,500 and 14,000 years old.

Professor Lyman’s suggestion to a farmer is to just take a walk across his or her land after it has been tilled and rained on. The combination can bring things to the surface and reveal them.

Lyman says he keeps “waitin’ for the mastodon tooth to walk in.”

The professor urges potential hunters to know where they are, though. Different laws apply to finding ancient sites and objects depending on who owns the property on which they are discovered. His advice is to contact law enforcement whenever a find is made.

Also when a find is made, Professor Lyman hopes it will be brought to experts for examination. He offers the example of another bison skull that was found by a woman in the St. Louis area on private property. She never made it available for any study, which is frustrating from a science perspective. “Bison skulls in Missouri, for example, are pretty rare, and when you find ’em it would be nice to be able to at least take some measurements, maybe take a very small sample and get a radio carbon date and those sorts of things, to help us get an idea of what the past was like.”

Anyone who comes across something of interest can reach the professor at the University of Missouri’s Department of Anthropology.