History Nebraska Blog

Can You Dig It?

It’s September!  That means it’s Nebraska Archeology Month, a month-long exploration of Nebraska’s archeological past.  In honor of the occasion, we’re sharing some archeological projects we’ve worked on at the Ford Center.

Back in 2008, conservation technician, Megan Griffiths, was hired to work on objects recovered from the Steamboat Bertrand, which sank in the Missouri River north of Omaha on April 1, 1865. The ship was loaded with items for a general store and headed to the gold mines in Montana. 

It was excavated in the late 1960s and early 1970s in what is now DeSoto Wildlife Refuge. and approximately 600,000 objects were recovered. The objects were treated by DeSoto staff at the time they were excavated, but after 30 years, it was time to treat some of them again. The metal objects, in particular, were beginning to corrode again.

Box with 90 yeast cans, each in separate divider with paper label. Metal showing corrosion and losses

A typical box of yeast cans from the Steamboat Bertrand.  Each can has a unique accession number that had to stay with it.

Objects were brought to the Ford Center in batches and Megan would remove the old coating, which was beginning to fail, and reduce corrosion products so that a new coating could be applied. Over 3.5 years, Ford Center staff treated over 4000 objects from DeSoto.

woman in white lab coat and respirator holds can in left hand and applies coating with a brush in the right hand.  Tanks of solvent and additional cans are in the image.

Conservation Technician, Megan Griffiths, applies a lacquer coating to the yeast cans.

Another object is this canteen which had been in a display case at the Ford Center for 20 years.  The canteen was excavated by History Nebraska (then called the Nebraska State Historical Society) at Fort Atkinson, Nebraska, in 1964.  Fort Atkinson was an active military post from 1820-1827.  The canteen is made from several pieces of tinned sheet iron soldered together. The canteen was in poor condition.  Old repairs made to the vessel were made of a combination of thick pressed board bracing, card stock, and printed acidic paper.  Adhesive accretions from these repairs were discolored and failing in places.  The iron alloy was heavily corroded and there were large losses to the body of the vessel.

(Left) Senior Conservation Technician, Vonnda Shaw, reassembles the canteen fragments using photos from before treatment. (Right) Vonnda and State Archeologist, Rob Bozell, discuss the support mount needed for storage and display.

The canteen was treated by Vonnda Shaw, Senior Conservation Technician.  Her prior experience in archeology was especially helpful in the treatment of the canteen.  After solubility tests were carried out, the old repairs and mount were removed.  Corrosion products and dirt were reduced from the canteen using a combination of mechanical methods, air abrasion with glass beads, and removal with a micro-jack as needed.  Due to the thin nature of the vessel and the heavy corrosion products present on the canteen, some material loss occurred.  Fragments were bagged and labeled according to their general location on the vessel if known. The metal pieces were coated with a protective lacquer coating and the were fitted back together with spun polyester fabric and additional lacquer.  An internal support mount was created for the canteen using polyethylene foam, Tyvek, and acid-free, lignin-free mat board.

archeological canteen before treatment     archeological canteen after treatment

Archeological canteen from the 1820s, excavated in the 1960s.  Before Treatment on the Right, After Treatment on the Left.


The Ford Center is also currently treating some archeological objects that will be used in the Nebraska History Museum's upcoming exhibit on Nebraska archeology, which opens November 15.


Assortment of archaeology objects, glass bottles, ceramic pots, metal tools, in boxes and bags on a table

An assortment of Archeological Objects awaiting treatment at the Ford Conservation Center.

The exhibit focus on the questions that archeologists are asked most often and will feature a collection of artifacts dating from 12,000 years ago to the early 1900s, as well as photographs and maps that help tell the story of Nebraska archeology. Stay tuned for more on the exhibit in the coming weeks!

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