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Lost artifacts from Rocheport archaeological excavation recovered 29 years later

Wednesday, December 14, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 10:30 p.m. CST, Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Brett Dufur, right, hands out paper bags of artifacts to Rocheport residents Jesse LaPuma, 24, Jessica Long, 26, and Paul Melcher, 62, on Dec. 7 at the MU Museum Support Center. The artifacts are from a 1982 archaeological dig that took place in Rocheport, Mo. Dufur has spent almost the last decade tracking down all of the boxes. "I feel like a kid in a candy store on Christmas," Dufur said before opening the boxes.

COLUMBIA — Almost 30 years ago, several thousand years worth of Rocheport history was excavated, put into 10 boxes and forgotten.

On Dec. 7, several Rocheport residents met at the MU Anthropology Museum Support Center to open those boxes for the first time.

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Brett Dufur, a former mayor of Rocheport, began his search for the lost artifacts about 10 years ago after meeting Matt Shaw, a Lincoln University anthropology professor.

Shaw was an undergraduate at MU in the fall of 1982 when he and 10 to 12 other students enrolled in professor Robert Bray's field study course broke ground at a small site in Rocheport. Shaw estimated that the site was 4 meters wide and 6 meters long, located near the Rocheport Museum. 

Shaw didn't know what happened to the artifacts they'd found during the fall and following summer when the dig took place. Bray died before any of the artifacts could be cataloged.

Armed with the information Shaw had given him, the only thing Dufur was missing was the name of the excavation site. Unfortunately, when Dufur tried to search for any information about the dig through MU's online anthropology database, he couldn't find anything.

Recovering the artifacts became a "bucket list item" for Dufur. On the cusp of his 40th birthday, he tried once more to reach out to the MU Anthropology Department. 

This fall, he was able to come up with some GPS coordinates that corresponded to his rough idea of where the dig took place. He sent them to Brandy Tunmire, assistant curator of the American archaeology division of the MU Museum of Anthropology.

With the GPS coordinates, Tunmire was able to do a bit of detective work and recover the 10 boxes of materials from excavation site 23BO1047. Because the materials had never been processed, they didn't show up on any online databases.

Tunmire discovered that the boxes had been stored in the old MU research building on Sinclair Road before being moved to the Museum Support Center on Rock Quarry Road when it was built in 1993.The boxes were stored with other items excavated in Boone County, and left on the shelves at the support center for another 18 years. 

"People got busy and the items must have been pushed under the table," Shaw said. "The further they get pushed under the table, the further they get pushed out of everyone's minds. And professor Bray was so busy, he wasn't even a full-time teaching professor at MU at the time."

Shaw said participating in the excavation was a defining experience in his college career. "That fall, Professor Bray got me hooked for life on archaeology," he said. "We would dig maybe 14 or 15 inches into the ground and find artifacts that were 1,200 or more years old."

The Rocheport site yielded clay pottery from ancient Native American settlements along with buttons and beads, old nails, china and jewelry that belonged to 18th and 19th century pioneers, farmers and settlers.

Dufur is enthusiastic about recovering any bit of Rocheport's past, which he said has largely been lost over the years.

"The town has burned to the ground several times, so we're literally like a historic town with amnesia because we've lost so much of our past," he said.

"If you're in Cape Girardeau, you can go to the courthouse and you can see what steamboat landed on what day in 1885," Dufur said. "All those old journals are there. Rocheport just has nothing left."

Wednesday's gathering at the Museum Support Center looked like an archaeological excavation of its own. Dufur and the Rocheport residents sifted through the boxes with eagerness and enthusiasm commenting on arrowheads, knapped stones, old beads, animal bones and bits of clay pottery.

Tunmire plans to spend the next several months processing, cataloging and recording notes on all of the materials. She then hopes to pass them along to the Rocheport Museum.

Dufur giddily pored over each box, snapping photos of the artifacts with his phone and joking that a crystal skull had to be hiding in one of the boxes. He had the satisfaction of crossing another item off of his bucket list, and of adding more to the list of lost items that will help shed light on Rocheport's past.

"So much of Rocheport has been lost, so what's really exciting about this is that we're finally getting a piece of our history back," he said.


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Comments

Kim Small December 14, 2011 | 1:00 p.m.

Kudos, Brett!

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