Elliot Park dig unearths Downtown history

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September 19, 2005 // UPDATED 1:58 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Amy Anderson
Amy Anderson

Volunteers sift through dirt and the past in archaeological excavation

Community volunteers eager to unlock their inner archaeologist got their chance July 27-31, when students and experts teamed up with volunteers for the second annual Elliot Park Neighborhood Archaeology Project.

From middle school students to grandmothers, there was a job available for anyone who showed up. The five-day excavation took place at 14th Street and Park Avenue behind the Minnesota AIDS Project building.

University of Minnesota Ph.D. student, archaeologist and Project Director Kent Bakken began planning the archaeological digs a few years ago after discovering promising sites and learning local history.

"I've been actively involved with the neighborhood organization for a few years, and I realized that there was a lot of potential in bringing together the networks that exist in the neighborhood with the networks that exist in the archaeological community," Bakken explained.

Volunteers at the dig uncovered the foundation of a 1870-80s-era house and a stone path leading up to it, as well as a chamber pot, a man's "moustache coffee cup," and a British plate, all dating from around the turn of the 20th century.

Historical significance

Some workers sifted the dirt for artifacts, while others helped in the field lab, dug through layers of earth or surveyed the land.

In 2004, a team of over 50 volunteers discovered the remains of an 1874 home on Portland Avenue, including dishes, glass and pieces of leather. This year, the team unearthed another valuable historic site and Bakken has seen more support than he imagined.

"Community reaction to the project has been tremendous. There is a lot of interest and enthusiasm," Bakken said. "It's a very busy and fun five days, making sure that things run smoothly and everyone can stay productively occupied, learn something worthwhile and have a good time."

Pat Emerson, head archaeologist at the Minnesota Historical Society doesn't see the only goal as finding rare artifacts, but also as fostering a learning environment.

"My view is that the specifics of what we find aren't as important as the amount of community involvement and learning that occurs," Emerson said. "Many people see this land only as a modern city, but it's built on the foundation of the past, and that history is still around here."

The concept of the dig is to encourage residents of all ages to learn history and archaeology, as well as to meet their neighbors. Bakken said the benefits from the projects have been significant for all parties involved.

"People become more interested and invested in their local history," Bakken said. "They develop a stronger sense of place and community, rooted in that history. From the perspective of archaeologists, there is also a double benefit: people better understand what archaeology is, what it can tell us and what its limits are."

Students dig it

A number of the people who benefited from the dig were students interested in archaeology. Prior to working at the site, Breck School seniors Amelia Bailey, Colin McCarthy and Lauren Vargas spent time researching the lifestyles of the people in these 19th-century homes.

"We learned the backgrounds of the people and the houses for our class, and we'll eventually make a project about what we've learned during the dig," Bailey said.

Sam Redman, an anthropology and history major at the University of Minnesota -- Morris, used the dig as a learning experience for his future archaeological endeavors. Working in the field lab, Redman cleaned and sorted artifacts, separating and putting them into bags by category.

"We're organizing these artifacts -- including glass, metal, ceramic, rock and bone -- for future generations to use," Redman said. "These collections will be utilized by university students for research and later go to the Minnesota Historical Society as a resource for local history."

With only five days to excavate the land, the group knew they wouldn't have enough time to discover all the area had to offer. Emerson hopes to continue this project in the same location next year in order to further knowledge about the homes.

"The Minnesota AIDS Project has no plans for the land that we know of, so it would be great to come back and finish up the job," Emerson said. "Last year, by the time we got to Friday, we began to find really interesting things. We wished we could have three to four more weeks to work instead of just two more days. There's so much left to find."

For further information on the dig, Councilmember Lisa Goodman (Ward 7) created a video profiling the process. It will be shown on public access channels as a City Council highlight. Dates and channels of airing were not available to the Downtown Journal at press time.