Construction on a flood recovery project on the University of Iowa campus has uncovered the foundations of homes dating back to Iowa City’s earliest settlers. Workers form the State Archeologist’s office are now racing against the clock inside heated tents to dig out what they can from the foundations of two homes dating back to the early 1800’s.
Project archeologist Marlin Engels says the Hubbard Park site along the Iowa River sits on what was a jumping off point for pioneers. “This was an important territorial road across the river. And you can imagine this in the 1830s, with Conestoga wagons all backed up here and teams of horses, people loading and unloading materials trying to get their teams across the river, because the ferry wasn’t even put in ’til the 1840s,” Engels explains.
Engels says within the foundations, buried about four feet below the surface, archeologists are uncovering a spread of household items –coins, scraps of dishes, and shards of bottles. He says it’s a unique situation where the items are preserved by a layer of clay and mud. “It’s one of the few chances in any city in Iowa that we’ve come across a sealed kind of time capsule layer that we can really get a lot of information out of,” Engels says.
Workers discovered the foundations in a green space on the U-I campus while digging down to install a chilled water pipe. Construction has been called off while archeologists complete an excavation. But project archeologist Bill Whittaker says that in order to allow the university’s project to go forward as quickly as possible, archeologists can only investigate the narrow trench created by the new construction. Whittaker says that makes it tougher to get a clear picture of the floor plan of the historic homes.
“It’s very difficult for us to tell the extents of them because we can’t chase them east or west,” Whittaker says, “we might see a foundation line but we don’t know what’s the interior and what’s the exterior.” Whittaker says he hopes they’ll be able to continue excavating the nearby areas after construction is complete.
University of Iowa director of Planning and Construction, Rod Lehnertz, says the university is expecting a two to three week delay, and that’ll come at a cost. “They amass their construction workers for the site and when they’re pulled off the site both their equipment and their operators have to either be reassigned or taken off the project and wait. Both that and the ultimate completion date may be impacted, and that’ll incur construction delay costs,” Lehnerts says.
State Archeologist John Doershuk’s office issued a report in 2010 recommending that the university conduct an archeological survey of Hubbard Park before construction. But the University and emergency recovery officials determined it to be a low risk site, and the project went forward. Doershuck says that resulted in several buildings and foundations being destroyed as the trench was cut.
In October, contractors made a similar discovery while beginning work on U-I’s new School of Music. Doershuk says the prestudy can depend on how the project is funded. “When buildings like the new dorm or the wellness center was put in, those were not federal projects, so there was no compliance requirement,” Doershuk says. “When the new art museum gets built, the university will have to make a decision about whether to do any pre-studies.” For now the archeologists are trying to do as much work as they can on the Hubbard Park site before the new construction begins again.