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Treasure in a Cornfield (imgur.com)
276 points by aaron695 on Feb 1, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 55 comments

I've lived in Kansas City for years. The Steamboat Arabia museum is a great experience. In the early days, one of the original guys would often be there and tell the whole story to groups.

Interestingly, they had a lot to learn about saving the artifacts. Since everything was submerged for so long in fresh water mud the wood artifacts would shrivel up when they dried up. For many months, they stored all the wood artifacts in one of the guy's backyard pool until they could learn how to properly transition the wood artifacts to a restored state.

Glad they knew to learn instead of being surprised by shriveled artifacts.

This is a fantastic illustration of geological processes. Sometimes I look at hillsides and geological layers and wonder how they could ever be built up so much. How could hundreds of feet of rock be deposited little by little, to make such thick layers? Well, here it is. A boat that sank in a river is 49 feet below a cornfield only a few human generations later. Amazing.

No geology here, just geomorphology. These are surface features, and the movement of water and soil happens at a rapid clip when humanity doesn't lock it in irons.

Natural rivers are usually not static features. The Mississippi is full of sediment, and strongly inclined towards major floods. In a natural landscape, those floods deposit mud every time the banks are breached, the banks are constantly degrading, the surrounding areas are swampy, flattened areas that get reshaped on a regular basis. A natural floodplain-river exists in a dynamic equilibrium, constantly shifting a tiny to medium-sized trickle of water around a vast, deep, soft bed of mud it deposited, only occasionally bumping into the hills (geological or aeolian features usually) bordering the floodplain.

What's strange and unnatural is that we could draw a line on a map, expect a river to be confined to this line, and reinforce that line with rock walls and soil levies; That we could dam major portions of the continental watershed in order to regularize water distribution; That we could drain swamps the size of states and turn them into cropland, or fill prairie or desert with canals to do the same.

We have cut off this area from the natural cycles of sedimentation, all but the most extreme "natural disasters" are prevented through intensive engineering began sometime in the 20th century. Because we needed to make spring planting. We replaced the silty mud that made the region such great cropland with chemical fertilizers & pesticides, and specialized farm equipment.

Either we feed our species, or we die. Granted, we as Americans eat too much and waste too much, but even if we all stuck to 2000 calories a day and cleaned our plates doing it, 19th century and prior farming techniques would simply not support our current population. And I disagree with your last sentence. Fertilizers and pesticides don't replace dirt, they make it more effective at growing crops.

Of course.

I just feel the need to push back against the people who think about agriculture as some kind of natural ecological outgrowth. Ag changes the ecology of a landscape enormously, and the accomodations to ag end up reshaping the physical character of things so much we forget what they originally looked like or how they originally functioned.

It's really interesting that 45 vertical ft of silt can pile up on top of something in 150 years.

Some of that 45 feet is because the ship sank into the mud. Quoting https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabia_%28steamboat%29 :

> The snag ripped open the hull, which rapidly filled with water. The upper decks of the boat stayed above water, and the only casualty was a mule that was tied to sawmill equipment and forgotten. The boat sank so rapidly into the mud that by the next morning, only the smokestacks and pilot house remained visible.

Since two decks disappeared overnight, that suggests the boat sank at least 15 feet into the mud.

We can assume the water depth was that of the hull and the first deck, but I can only come up with a wild guess that it's between 10' and 30' of water which later became silted over.

Much less than 150 years. Once the river moved, almost no more silt would be deposited.

Makes you wonder what you walk over every day hidden beneath your feet.

In Europe, that could be anything from Roman ruins to unexploded WW2 bombs.

Most suitably large construction digs will turn up something of archaeological interest.

That's what happened during the dig for our (Bloomberg) new London HQ. A ton of stuff was unearthed and will be featured in an exhibit on the site once the office opens.

"'Entire streets' of Roman London uncovered in the City": http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london-22084384

In Toronto, it would be soldiers from the war of 1812 who were often buried where they fell. http://citiesintime.ca/toronto/story/surf-reveals/

Some interesting history about Seattle:


I went to this museum on a road trip when I was a kid. It is truly amazing and I have thought back on the experience a lot throughout the years. Go check it out if you have the chance. You wont regret it.

I'm dying to know if they actually got the excavation done before the spring planting.

Yes they did, and I can recommend the museum, they are down to the last 60 tons or so of material being restored.

One of the reasons they had to finish on time was that as soon as it got reliably above freezing the sandy "walls" of the excavation would no longer hold and the entire pit would subside into a depression. Fortunately they avoided that.

Other interesting bits are that because the mud had locked out transpiration of any additional air, once the oxygen was used up it stayed that way, so a number of things which would not have normally survived, did. For example, according to the museum, they have the only examples of rubber boots from that era anywhere in the world.

The other really fascinating thing for me was that the steamship was supplying stores along the river, and because of that it had pretty much one of everything you could buy at a store, and as a result you get to see the entire contents of what would have been a hardware store on display. And that gives you a really good idea of what you could build/make with the tools that you could buy, and what tools you would have to make if you wanted to make something that those tools couldn't build. That sort of defines an interesting set for "preppers" if you imagine you are trying to "reboot" the US from scratch :-).

Yeah, this got better and better as it went on and I kept seeing more and more interesting items. I don't know when I'll end up in Kansas City, but this will be on my itinerary when I do get there.

Sounds like they made it on time: "On February 11, 1989, work ceased at the site, and the pumps were turned off. The hole filled with water overnight. After the pumps were turned off, the site was filled back in so that it would not be a hazard to humans."

Here's an entire Roman city that was well-preserved thanks to silting and river meandering: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ostia_Antica

America, I so love your craftsmanship as exemplified by many of these items. Always the practical with a touch of elegance.

Great minute-earth video about river meandering https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8a3r-cG8Wic

Wow, what a great discovery!

Some other amazing shipwrecks I saw in museums on a recent trip:

* The Vasa, a Swedish warship that sank in 1628 (in the Vasa Museum in Stockholm)


* The "Tang dynasty shipwreck" or Belitung shipwreck, an Arab ship that sank off the coast of Indonesia while sailing from China to Africa about 1190 years ago (in the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore -- just the artifacts onboard, not the ship).


I wonder if there's a list of shipwrecks that are now in museums. It seems that there must be dozens or hundreds of them around the world.

> Jars of preserved food that are still edible, tested by one of the excavators themselves, who ate a pickle from the Arabia finding it to be still perfectly fresh.

So that happened.

The process of canning was developed to preserve food almost indefinitely. Its a sterilized air tight container. The term is non-perishable food for a reason. When the process is followed correctly, there shouldn't be a biological process that can take place to cause spoiling.

Are the "don't eat me" signs of an incorrectly-followed process pretty obvious? Just wondering for next time I come across...err...out of curiosity

On modern cans the lid will be depressed inward from air pressure. If this lid is popped upwards (while still sealed) this shows that biological activity has change the air pressure within the jar... so it wasn't properly sterilized/seal on production.

I'm assuming these are Mason Jars. Which have been in use since 1858 (the patent has long expired so they're almost universal).

When dealing with something like pickles the seal isn't as important as the pickle juice itself is incredibly hostile to bacterial life. The seal is more important to prevent evaporation.

Since the food was stored in glass, it wouldn't have issues with toxicity either.

I dont know if it would have been used for food storage, but some glass does contain lead https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lead_glass

Lead crystal was too valuable, and not really durable enough, for common food storage.

It is really amazing, but I'm left to wonder about something.

Now that we've dug it all up, and are exposing it to air, the items won't last nearly as long. It seems like some items should be left in an inert environment. Do they do things like that?

The museum is likely a controlled environment. The artifacts may not last quite as long as if buried in mud, but what use is them lasting longer if they are useless?

Definitely a gem of a museum if you're ever in KC.

The Liberty Memorial WWI museum's also excellent. Better in some ways than what they've got at Les Invalides in Paris. One of a handful of things in the city worth adjusting an itinerary or travel route to see/experience.

Incidentally, the Middle Eastern restaurant (Habashi House, I think it's called) on the City Market square where the Steamboat Arabia museum's located is pretty damn good. Coffee shop in the corner's got good sandwiches. Avoid the Indian placeā€”not good.

Now that is what I call industrial archaeology!

Amazing how well the mud preserved all those items. I would like to find a source for recreating some of the bottled food items, I wonder how much of that has changed. It is still one of the long term storage methods when done right.

With so many artifacts I wonder how many were sent to other museums if any? Time capsules, if any, from that time period would not have had such a treasure

If it's anaerobic, things can be preserved for a very long time. Check out bog bodies:


> With so many artifacts I wonder how many were sent to other museums if any?

Most of them ended up at the Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City: http://1856.com/

I would just like labels for all the colors-of-the-rainbow in pickles.

Excavated in 1988 but still awesome!

For some music for how it could sound to take a keel boat up the Missouri River in the early 1800s from Saint Louis all the way to the Grand Tetons:


that is, the music from the movie The Big Sky. So, right, the music is by Dimitri Tiomkin.

How the heck did the boat get buried 45 feet deep under mud in a now level corn field?

Wikipedia on the Mississippi river:

Before 1900, the Mississippi River transported an estimated 400 million metric tons of sediment per year from the interior of the United States to coastal Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico. During the last two decades, this number was only 145 million metric tons per year.

It's not called big muddy for nothing.

It's Missouri River, not Mississippi.

Place of sinking at Google Maps: https://goo.gl/maps/Mwvbn9KiyUQ2

The Missouri is one of the major tributaries (accounting for about half the volume once it meets up), it's where the a large portion of that 400 Mt comes from

those diagonal sections that run somewhat parallel to the river are past tracks of the river as it slivered its way through the landscape over time.

Got me looking for river bed evolution https://duckduckgo.com/?q=river+bed+evolution&iax=1&ia=image...

Quite amazing.

Sort of on topic, here a great 2011 article by Weather Underground's Jeff Masters on one of the major control structures on the Mississippi that prevents it from taking a more direct route to the Gulf of Mexico:


Also check out John McPhee's Control of Nature on the topic.

Seconded: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Control_of_Nature

Also in that book: efforts to stop volcano lava flow by massed firehoses in Iceland, and sedimentation and rainfall in the San Gabriel mountains above LA. 100% worthwhile.

Since I grew up in Memphis, that is, on the east bank of the Mississippi River and since Dad liked fishing, early on I got an introduction to how the Mississippi, and likely the Missouri, Rivers can move mud.

Still, that that boat got buried 45 feet deep under a nice, level, dry corn field is surprising.

Here's how it works: The river flows nice and straight. One day the flow is a little less, and some of the silt or sand settles out and forms a sand bar. Then the river starts to flow around the sand bar. One day the flow is higher, and as the river flows around the sand bar, it flows in a curve and eats away at, erodes, the bank of the river on the outside of the curve. Then on the inside of the curve, the flow rate is less and more silt and sand settle out, and the river curves more. Eventually the river curves so much it makes its path nearly a full circle, say, 10 miles in diameter. Then one fine spring, the flow is heavy, the water level rises, and some of the water doesn't go around the circle but just takes the short cut directly from the beginning of the arc to the end of it and, thus, cuts off the circle 10 miles in diameter. So, that circle now becomes a cut off. As go down the Mississippi River, there are old cutoffs on the left and right and left, ..., all the way down.

Soon a cutoff can have no flow at all.

Well, that boat sank in part of the river that became a cutoff. Then with little or no flow, the silt and sand settled out and the water became better for fishing. So, Dad and I did a lot of fishing in such cutoffs -- north and south from Memphis, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, etc.

One of the cutoffs we fished in had a sunken warship from the Civil War. Sometimes could see the ship -- much closer to the surface than 45 feet deep. So, that ship was getting buried under sand and silt much slower than the case of the ship in the Missouri River cutoff.

So, how could that farm land be so level with the ship 45 feet down? Well, each spring, the river could rise and dump very muddy water into the cutoff. When the spring was over, the silt and sand would settle out and cover the ship with another layer. Then the rest of the year, the water level would fall and flow in the new, main channel and not in the cutoff.

So, okay, if that farm land was fairly low, then just from spring floods, the result could be the level land with the boat buried 45 feet down. Okay.

What is surprising is that, then, the farm land would still about have to be not much higher than the river and would be prone to flooding each spring. Maybe the land does flood each spring. But if the US Corps of Engineers dredges the main channel and/or puts up a levy, then maybe they can keep the river in the main channel and the farm land not flooded.

Before the US Corp of Engineers, dredging and levys, each spring the story in Arkansas was amazing: The Mississippi River would flood about the whole eastern half of Arkansas, over to a geological feature that had the land a little higher. Also, that area is an active earthquake zone, especially at the NW corner of Tennessee. And, IIRC, the geological feature was from earthquake activity, and the eastern half of Arkansas has long been slowly sinking.

Well, then, over the millennia, each spring the river put down another layer of silt and sand in the whole eastern half of Arkansas. So, now, want good silt and sand for top soil? It's 20+ feet deep over the whole eastern half of Arkansas! And it's still moist and not very solid. So, when build a road, nice and straight and flat, come back in 10 years and it looks like a piece of lumber that warped. Tough to build a stable road in that part of Arkansas!

Some of the geology, geography, ecology, etc. of the Missouri, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers is a surprising subject.

But it isn't just about fishing: Those rivers are needed for commerce, say, barges with coal, wheat, lumber, etc. So, the US Corps of Engineers has to do enough with dredging and levies to let the barges keep moving. So, the Corps has to fight those rivers, really, all the way down to New Orleans.

From Wikipedia:

"Over time, the river shifted a half a mile (800 m to the east). The site of the sinking is in a field in the area of present-day Kansas City, Kansas."


Good answers here, but thinking this way may help. The river was deep. Rivers on flat ground, left to their own devices, migrate laterally a lot. We don't see it much, but if you think of oxbow lakes


and recognize that they sediment up & fill in over time, you'll get the idea.

It's cool and all, but I was hoping they would find a bunch of gold bars or something. It's kind of a bummer to go through all that and just find some shoes and canned goods... :( Actually, I'd be pretty pissed off.

Why would gold bars be cooler? Gold can be bought on the regular market. 150 years old pickles are rarer.

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