Tales from the Underground

One highlight of “Cornfield Shipwreck,” a documentary airing on HBO, is alum Emily Ruoff preserving pickles.

Reason being, those pickles are a century and a half old, part of a fascinating archeological dig in America’s heartland in the late 1980s. The documentary traces the excavation of the 171-foot Steamboat Arabia, which sunk on the Missouri River in 1856, three years after it was built in Pennsylvania.

Emily Ruoff sewing an item of clothing unearthed on the shipwreck Arabia.

Aboard the ship were brand new items to be delivered to stores and homes on the new frontier up and down the Missouri  – everything from still-edible (well, technically) jarred food to clothing to weapons. On Sept. 5, 1856. A snag of trees just under the river’s surface ripped into the ship as it was cruising the Missouri. No one aboard was injured, but the ship and its contents went down and stayed down for 150-plus years.

While the river changed course over time, the steamboat remained—45 feet below a cornfield—until an unlikely crew invested time and money to dig it up in the late 1980s. The result was 200 tons worth of well-preserved artifacts that are now the bulk of the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City. And that’s where Ruoff, a  graduate of the University’s applied anthropology master’s program, worked  while obtaining her degree remotely.

Emily Ruoff and some old but heartily preserved pickles.

“There’s been a few steamboats throughout the world that have been excavated,” she said, “but the Arabia collection was just so immense compared to the other steamboats, that it was a very extraordinary find.”

Growing up in Kansas City, Ruoff frequently hearing about the famous ship, its cargo and the museum that resulted from excavating all of it. As a kid she loved visiting the Arabia museum and declared herself early on a future archeologist. .

 “I’ve grown up with the story of the Arabia steamboat my whole life,” she said. “I’ve got pictures of me at the museum when I was really little.”

After completing her undergraduate degree at the University of South Dakota, Ruoff aimed for a career in museums and scored a job at the Arabia museum. While there, she sought a graduate degree in anthropology and found Minnesota State Mankato offered what she needed.

“I thought it was pretty unique and a pretty good fit. It looked like I’d be able to work with professors a bit more directly, so I applied to MSU for a master’s degree in applied anthropology.”

She continued working for the museum while working remotely toward her master’s, which she completed in December of 2019. COVID shut down the museum, but her time there remains remarkable, she  said.

“The most intriguing part in my opinion as a preservationist is that the boat sank deep enough into the ground to where it was an anaerobic environment, so there’s no light or oxygen that could reach these artifact that entire time. And it was a cool environment, so it perfectly preserved these artifacts and their history.”

She finds it interesting that the thousands of items she’s worked to preserve don’t have much of a history themselves, having been brand new when the ship went down.

“Usually holding the artifacts you think about all the other people that had interacted with the artifact through time and it’s really exciting. But with these … they haven’t really had that much experience. They’d been created, and then they were lost.”