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Archaeological dig resumes on UI campus

Researchers hope to learn about pre-Civil War Iowa City

Adam Wesley photos/The Gazette

Bill Whittaker, staff archaeologist at the Office of the State Archaeologist, sifts thro
Adam Wesley photos/The Gazette Bill Whittaker, staff archaeologist at the Office of the State Archaeologist, sifts through a batch of soil looking for artifacts Thursday at Hubbard Park in Iowa City. Archaeologists began augering and examining the soil in test locations around the park to prepare for larger excavations, which will begin in mid-October.
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IOWA CITY — A surprise glimpse into Iowa City’s past has opened the door for a more in-depth look into how the community’s earliest settlers lived, worked and played.

Last week, researchers from the University of Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist returned to Hubbard Park on the University of Iowa campus, where construction crews in February accidentally uncovered historic artifacts during flood recovery and mitigation work.

Upon the initial discovery of building foundations, coins and pottery shards from the 1800s and an ancient spear point dating back 4,000 years, crews halted work just long enough to excavate portions of the site in the path of the flood project.

Crews resumed work on the $7.5 million multiyear flood mitigation effort outside the Iowa Memorial Union but made plans to continue investigating the park’s historical significance when the weather improved. Now that it has and UI students are back in town, researchers are digging deeper, said Bill Whittaker, a staff archaeologist at the Office of the State Archaeologist.

Preliminary soil work is underway to determine where to focus resources, but Whittaker said researchers could concentrate on the northeast corner, the northwest corner or the southern edge of the park.

“There used to be some working-class cottage houses in that area,” he said.

Students and faculty from the UI Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences have been helping researchers test soil to better understand the historical landscape and locate archaeological deposits.

The deepest digging so far has gone more than 3 meters beneath the surface, Whittaker said. The shallowest auger has been 1.5 meters.

Once excavation plans proceed Oct. 15, the state office will involve students, faculty and community volunteers using an online signup system. Work at the park will wrap up before Thanksgiving, but volunteers will have the chance to continue helping researchers in the lab after site work concludes.

“Come out for a day or two and work with us,” Whittaker said. “You don’t have to have experience.”

State archaeologists, before the flood project began, assessed the site as “low risk” but halted work after discovering flood deposits from 1851 had left a thick layer of soil that buried a historic surface predating the Civil War. The soil had created a sort of time capsule filled with artifacts such as house foundations, pieces of brick, nails, ceramics, glass, coins and a medallion dated to 1907.

Whittaker said the goal of the project is to more clearly understand life in the area as far back as 1830.

“It’s interesting because we don’t know a lot about that time,” he said. “There are very few newspapers that survived, and there was not a lot of local news.”

County histories talk a lot about the wealthiest residents, according to Whittaker.

“But what we have here is a poor to working-class neighborhood,” he said. “It could help to fill a big gap that we have in Iowa City history.”

Researchers want to determine chronologically how the neighborhood changed over time and how it was divided socially and economically.

“General everyday debris from people’s lives can tell us a lot about them,” Whittaker said.

The Office of the State Archaeologist and UI are partnering on the project with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, State Historical Society of Iowa, and Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management Department.

Whittaker said there are no plans to continue excavating the park beyond Thanksgiving. And, he said, the park’s sod should be restored by spring.

Elizabeth Reetz, education and outreach program director with the state office, said the staff plans to make public presentations about their findings after completing the lab analysis.

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