There were rumours of buried treasure, but it was pickles, perfume and a porcelain doll that David Hawley remembers most about the day in 1988 when he and his unlikely band of amateur archaeologists finally reached the resting place of the steamboat Arabia. The boat sank in the Missouri River, not far from Kansas City, in 1856, and had laid undiscovered for 132 years; a time capsule of American frontier life just waiting to be unearthed.

“We were down in the mud, pulling out trunks of cargo, when we found this bottle of French perfume,” Hawley tells wide-eyed guests at the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, where more than 100,000 items salvaged from the ship are on display. “We washed it off then wiggled the top to let a little of the perfume escape, and it still smelt good. For all those years the river didn’t get in and the perfume didn’t get out.”

A 132-year-old jar of pickles was pulled out of the wreck and passed around. “They still tasted fresh,” says Hawley. Inside a carpenter’s toolbox they found a porcelain doll, called a Frozen Charlotte. Hawley speculates that a young girl may have given her doll as a gift to her father, when he set off for a life building houses on the frontier. “She’d want him to have something to remember her by.”

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