A Glimpse of Urban Life Through Historical Archaeology
Archaeological Study Reveals the Uwritten History
Archaeological sites represent the physical remains of past human behavior at a single location dating to one or more periods of use. History Colorado contracted with RMC Consultants, Inc., an environmental and archaeological cultural resource consulting firm to conduct the field investigations at the site of the new History Colorado Center with the aim of enhancing our understanding of daily life in Denver. The excavations were directed by specific research questions, such as: How has the arrangement of space changed through time? How and when were utilities installed? How are artifacts arranged? Do any economic or technological dissimilarity correlate with the gender or ethnicity of the inhabitants?
The site was first given an official site number - 5DV12345 (link: 5DV12345 site map). In Colorado all archaeological and historic sites tracked by History Colorado are given what is called a Smithsonian trinomial number. This trinomial system is composed of a state numerical designation (Colorado is 5), a two letter designation for the county (in this case DV for Denver), and a sequential number for the site. The numbering system was started by the Smithsonian Institution based on early reservoir work involving the recording and excavation of archaeological sites. This numbering system has continued to the present day.
A plan map of the excavations (link: excavation plan map) shows where the site was dug. Due to limited time constraints, both mechanical (construction backhoe) and hand excavation techniques were applied. Each artifact was carefully mapped according to an established grid, recorded, photographed and later sorted by category. Many of the artifacts that were uncovered were as large as a furnace. Some were as small as a dime (link:ceramic piece). Excavations began with the revealing of one of the outer walls of the row house (link: row house outer-wall). The row house consisted of seven individual residences (link: row house structures). For these excavations the archaeologists had to wear construction safety gear and hand dig the units after the mechanical backhoe dug test trenches (link: digging next to a stepped wall). Soon it was discovered that there were intact cellars that could be examined (link: cellar). A notable architectural feature that was found was the presence of "Y" walls located at the rear of the row homes (link: "Y" wall). These wall partitions served to create space and allow window light into each residence. Other features found were the remains of utility pipes and drains (link:pipes).
Structure one, located at what was once the home address of 23 12th Ave and occupied by Mildred Yale, known from the archival research, revealed the most artifacts. These included personal and leisure items (link: toys and soda bottle), fragments of post-prohibition liquor bottles, toys, dolls (link: frozen charlottes), soda bottle fragments, facial cream jars, shoes, (link: shoes) buttons, jars (link: buttons and jars) and medicine bottles (link: personal hygiene and health) all dating from 1910 - 1929.
Other areas of the site also give all of us a glimpse of daily life. The duplex structure cellar located on Lincoln, known as structure nine, located at was once the address of 1215 Lincoln had some interesting finds as well. In this cellar were the remains of glass bottles (link: duplex bottles) including a Vess Cola bottle dating from 1946. Perhaps however the most interesting find was the remains of a nearly complete dog skeleton (link: dog skeleton). It is not clear how the skeleton was deposited. It is likely that the dog had been covered over soon after death. The dog was very young at the time of burial. Based on the lack of evidence of permanent teeth formation and the absence of long bone fusions, the dog has been estimated at between nine to seventeen weeks of age at the time of death. Perhaps it was a young family puppy.
Another interesting find was the remains of a masonry tank (link: masonry tank). The tank served as a cesspit which was one feature of earlier methods used to facilitate the installation of plumbing into homes. Its primary use was for the disposal of sewage. The cesspit or masonry tank may have been associated with the Rangeleigh apartments (link: Rangeleigh) or maybe even earlier. This feature represents the initial stage in the wastewater systems developed for Denver beginning in the late 1860s and early 1870s.
While archaeological sites are vestiges of our collective heritage, they contribute to a sense of place and cultural identity, and they are finite, fragile, irreplaceable, and non-renewable.
What is Urban Historic Archaeology?
One of the goals of urban historic archaeology is to document the growth and development of modern cities. Archaeologists conduct historic research and fieldwork to document changes in the ways that people lived and worked in an urban setting.
Fortunately the general history of most modern cities in the United States is well documented. Official records and reports, letters, diaries, newspapers, census records, deeds, probate records, business directories and other written and pictorial material provide ample sources of information about the rich and famous, the momentous events and societal changes connected with the growth and development of each city. Historians have researched and analyzed this documentary evidence to throw light on many aspects of each city's history, from the creation of a distinctive urban landscape and architecture to the way of life of the poorest of the immigrants. What can archaeology add to this picture?
One of the specific strengths of urban historic archaeology is that it provides independently derived information complementary to the written documentation. Urban historic archaeologists see the development of the city not from what people say or write, but from what they build and throw away. Urban historic archaeology is not about collecting bottles or architectural fragments or coins. It is about collecting information about the past, often incorporated in everyday objects. For the most part, these objects have little monetary worth but are valuable as they reveal information about the past. Archaeologists can see burgeoning international trade not from records of shipping tonnage, but from fragments of imported pottery. They can track social changes through the percentage of tea sets in a household's discarded pottery or the cuts of meat identifiable from bones. They try to assess class and ethnic differences by comparing the archaeological assemblages that fill abandoned wells and privies. Neither history nor archaeology is necessarily "truer" than the other but archaeological evidence is of a different nature than the documents used by historians.
Nyc.gov: landmark preservation committee
Links on Historic Archaeology and Urban Historic Archaeology:
Society for Historical Archaeology: http://www.sha.org/
The How Stuff Work site talks about urban Archaeology: http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/earth/geology/urban-archaeology.htm
The National Park Service has a link about urban archaeology projects in the U.S.: http://www.nps.gov/archeology/visit/urbanarch.htm
The Hull House study in Chicago is a fascinating look at urban archaeology: http://www.arch.uic.edu/urbanarch/mainpage.html