Archaeological finds in Iowa City 'extends our own history'

Discoveries at University of Iowa campus could offer clues to history of the area

Little has been written, and therefore is known, about life in the Iowa City area in the mid- to late-1800s.

But a serendipitous discovery last month during flood recovery work on the University of Iowa campus could unlock some of that period’s mysteries.

Researchers with the Office of the State Archaeologist (OSA) hope to continue excavating in and around Hubbard Park, which sits just south of the UI’s Iowa Memorial Union, when temperatures warm. If all goes as planned, the artifacts recently discovered during flood recovery work – and new artifacts uncovered in the coming months – will help fill historical gaps for the state, city and university.

“It might inform us more about what happened here,” said John Doershuk, state archeologist and director of the OSA. “Now we can see what people were doing here and why. This extends our own history that way.”

The initial rush to excavate the ground in the immediate path of the flood recovery work is over, and researchers now are examining the artifacts and soils collected. But researchers want to further excavate the site as temperatures warm – with the help of UI archaeology and anthropology students and community members.

And, if all goes well, Doershuk said, his office could be presenting the findings and their significance by fall.

“Whether a substantial prehistoric occupation is preserved buried below today’s grassy surface in Hubbard Park remains a primary research question deserving of more investigation,” he said.

Artifacts already discovered during the emergent 12-day excavation in and around Hubbard Park after flood recovery crews in January encountered the surprise archaeological deposit have met the significance criteria for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.

The finds include a well-preserved buried land surface, the top of which dates to the 1830s, as well as coins and pottery shards. In addition to the pre-Iowa City land surface, excavators found a series of building foundations dating from as early as 1851 through to the late 1800s, according to Doershuk.

“Each of these foundation areas preserves information about the lifeways and activities of the people that created them and lived, however briefly, in the Hubbard Park area,” Doershuk said. “There is excellent potential for our researchers to link the archaeological data to the fragmentary historical records that are available, including the many photographs of the area from the late 1800s.”

Researchers also found at least one ancient stone spear point or knife typical of a form made 3,000 years ago, Doershuk said.

“We anticipate that many details about the history of this part of Iowa City and the University of Iowa will emerge from the artifact and archival research that will follow,” he said.

‘Pushing for nice weather’

Construction crews encountered the archaeological deposit while working on the $7.5 million IMU flood mitigation and recovery project, which is scheduled for completion in May 2015. The Federal Emergency Management Agency project will recover the ground floor and provide protection from future flooding, all while keeping the IMU open to minimize the inconveniences.

State officials conducted a broad review of the site before construction began, analyzing the risk of disturbing a potentially historic deposit. They viewed the risk as low, but once the “find” was made, the state archaeologist’s office met on Jan. 28 with UI officials, FEMA, the Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division and the State Historical Preservation Office to devise a plan.

At that time, officials expected excavators would need three weeks to recover the archaeological data in compliance with the National Historical Preservation Act. Doershuk said the frigid temperatures made the work extra challenging.

“We have a near perfect storm of extreme weather, an in-progress construction timetable, and a complicated and well preserved archaeological deposit that meets the significance criteria for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places,” he said.

Still, researchers wrapped up in 12 business days, allowing the flood project to resume. Continued excavation of the Hubbard Park site was discussed during that January meeting, although Doershuk said details of exactly when and where further excavation will occur haven’t been ironed out.

“We are pushing for nice weather,” he said. “The IMU is pushing for when they don’t have an event going on.”

Minimizing the impact

To minimize disruption at the park, crews will excavate small areas – one at a time – and they will avoid events, such as the Fourth of July, Doershuk said.

“We don’t want people falling in the holes,” he said.

When crews are done with each dig, they will stabilize the surface and restore the grassy lawn, according to Doershuk. The project, he said, could demonstrate the historical potential that exists beneath the university campus.

“This is a good project to demonstrate that it’s possible to get it out of the ground and preserve it,” he said.

As for the flood recovery work, UI director of planning and construction Rod Lehnertz said it remains to be seen how the 12-day delay will affect the project’s timeline and total cost. Officials did set aside contingency dollars for “unforeseen instances,” however, according to Lehnertz.

“And this would be one of those cases,” he said.

The UI also will work with Homeland Security and FEMA on funding options related to additional costs incurred for the work interruption.

Because archaeologists have investigated only a small portion of Hubbard Park and have interest in doing more, Lehnertz said, FEMA and the state might expand requirements of the flood recovery project to include additional digging at the site.

“Should this be required, we will work closely with the Office of the State Archaeologist to locate and time the investigations so that impacts to the University of Iowa business and operations are minimized,” Lehnertz said.

Hubbard Park is “very important” to the UI campus, as it is used often for functions and events.

“We are hopeful that we can maintain effective use of Hubbard, even if it is partially disrupted for investigations into the history of our community and State,” Lehnertz said. “Both interests are important.”

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