Old Dirt – New Thoughts

November 7, 2007

A Cold End to the Church Dig

Filed under: Fieldwork,Hamline History @ 1:05 am and

St. Paul weather at 3:53 PM (Overcast 37 °F / 3 °C)

Excavating Hamline History Project - 2007 ClassToday’s cold weather was well timed. No one in the class seemed disappointed to finish the excavations on a day when the blustery north winds made it feel almost like winter. Personally I like working outside when November turns stormy. It makes coming into a warm house (or a warm lab) feel so good.

I’m very pleased with our accomplishments. Although we didn’t find the church’s organ, we did discover a few new things about Hamline village history. Our lab phase will bring these discoveries into focus, but the stained glass and other architectural details are the most obvious of our finds. The project was also a success as a community archaeology dig and, at least so far, as an educational opportunity. Its great to see how far my students have progressed as field archaeologists in such a short time.

A collapse of our trench wall created the greatest challenge to our research goals. I almost gave up on trying to reach the church basement.

Church interior at top of rubbleWe were down about 140 cm (4.5 feet) in our easternmost unit (farthest inside the church) and just starting to remove brick and mortar rubble last Thursday when the north trench wall collapsed. The sandy soil used to fill the church site after the demolition is so loose that its almost like trying to dig in a sandbox. Although a discouraging setback, we returned on Sunday and in couple hoursBurned church remains on wood floor opened a smaller unit (about 75 cm square) and punched through to the basement floor (200 cm below the ground surface). We found a layer of burned wood about 20 cm thick immediately on top of the concrete floor. Mixed in this burned layer we recovered some wood molding, lots of nails and other metal, a little glass, one ceramic sherd, and a small curved sheet of Wallpaperwall paper. This last find has a paisley print of muted earth-tone colors. We are storing it in the lab refrigerator until we have time to bring it to the conservation lab at the Minnesota Historical Society.

So what should we infer from the sparse finds inside the church (excluding architectural remains)? My guess is that we can say very little. The general absence of church artifacts in the small area of the basement we exposed does not necessarily mean the rest of the church interior would be equally unproductive to dig. As I pointed out to my students, we could “dig” a dozen small squares in our lab and not hit any “artifacts” even though our lab is overwhelmed with equipment and collections. What we are left with, after all our digging, is an inadequate sample from the church interior. The burned layer underneath the demolition rubble suggests an undisturbed fire scene. I think we need to come back to this site for another dig. We now know the stratigraphy and the foundation location. We know where to dig and how deep to go. We could dig a really big hole and I’m sure we’d find that church organ.

Kelly’s profile drawingJohn and enamel cupAndrew and Rayna screening


  1.   Patrick — November 7, 2007 @ 5:33 pm    

    Brian – it looks like you are breaking the students in for digging in the arctic. Only in the arctic there is no warm lab. Some snow and a little rain, fog and you’d be there. Frozen ground that you have to wait on to thaw would be a nice touch. Maybe you should open up a big hole in late March?

    Must say I like big holes myself. I always equate a dig to a digital picture. You only have so many pixels – all you can do is change the resolution and size of the picture. Fine scale, high resolution and you can only look at part of the picture (say the tip of a nose on a face). Low res and you can examine the whole face, but it looks like an impressionist painting. But at least with the low res you can see that you got a face. Too often archaeologists dig so fine they have
    no idea what they got. Dig big and you see the houses!

    Finally – it is pretty cool that the basement is still undisturbed. I’d say that is a HUGE discovery.


  2.   Brian — November 7, 2007 @ 6:08 pm    

    Hey Patrick – I also was breaking my students in for digging on Kodiak when we worked through the rains in early October. I’ve seen enough of your field photographs to know that a little bit of rain never kept your crews from their excavations. My students didn’t really seem to mind getting wept. I kept telling them we’re doing this for science. They can take an English literature class if they want to stay comfortable.

    Great analogy about digging and pixels. As you know, I’m one of those “high resolution” archaeologists. I may not zoom down to the micromorphology level, but I do like analyzing the little stuff. You’re absolutely right, though, that we need the big picture or the details have no meaning.

    We need a big dig at the church site just so we can deal with our unstable walls. I think we could relatively easily open up a large block – maybe even use a backhoe to remove the fill. I’d really like to have another chance to see what’s left inside the church.

  3.   Patrick — November 8, 2007 @ 5:09 pm    

    Brian – nothing wrong with fine grain resolution, but like you said you also need the big picture. I like to open a big hole and then bulk sample everything from some units (i.e do the fine scale analysis in a few areas of the dig). Its also good to have a reason for the fine scale analysis – and you have done some awesome stuff in this area (activity areas in houses). Collecting everything and doing really fine scale analysis just because you are expected to do so, is a waste of time and resources.

    I also like the typo in your comment – for ‘wet’ you put ‘wept’. I often feel our community volunteers are weeping when we force them to dig in the rain. I am not a big believer in covering digs with tarps – the light for digging is terrible, photographs are ugly, and the wind always blows the things apart anyway. One year it rained so hard we had to bale the housepit every couple of hours. We used the water to wet screen!


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