How a painting helped archeologists find a lost 200-year-old site

painting of steamboat on river beside bluffs

How do you find an archeological site that’s been lost for nearly 200 years? Fifteen years ago, NSHS archeologists made the discovery of a lifetime—and they did it using some surprising tools.

This is part of a series of posts about Engineer Cantonment, the winter camp of the 1819-20 Stephen Long Expedition—subject of a special issue of Nebraska History. If don’t already know, find out “What is Engineer Cantonment? And why is it so cool that we found it?

Here’s the story of how they found it:

Archeologists faced two main challenges.

First, site descriptions from 1819 were vague as to location. They knew the site was along the west side of the Missouri River. It was north of present-day Omaha, but below the known site of Fort Atkinson State Historical Park.

Second, nothing was visible above ground. And they knew the site might not even exist anymore. The shifting channels of the river might have washed it away long ago.

How did they find it? The first tools were a painting and a boat. Artist Titian Ramsay Peale painted the site in 1819-20 (shown above). Carrying a copy of the painting, archeologists took a boat out on a section of the river in early 2003—after the ice was out of the river but before leaves grew. This gave them the best view of the shape of the bluffs as Peale saw them.

Only spot looked promising. It seemed to match, even when they went closer to walk the ground.

photo of wooded bluff

But how accurate was Peale’s painting? Did he really care enough about the bluff in the background to copy its shape accurately? They were about to find out.

Next, archeologists brought in another surprising tool—surprising, that is, to those of us who aren’t archeologists. It was trenching machine, normally used to dig utility cable trenches. They dug several trenches based on where the painting indicated cabins. They took soil samples and sifted them through fine-mesh screens.

people digging in a long, narrow trench

And they found a brass button, glass trade beads, lead balls, and early 1800s trigger guard, and other items that matched the time period. The brass buttons shown here match military designs from that time period.

Four brass buttons of various design

Now they knew where to begin an archeological excavation. As they found more evidence, there could be no doubt. After nearly 200 years, Engineer Cantonment had been found.


— David Bristow, Editor


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