Sources - Papers
Vol. 49, No. 1-2 1990
ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE
PART 2: ARCHAEOLOGICAL EXPLORATIONS AND INTERPRETIVE POTENTIALS
Scott F. Anfinson
© 1989 Minnesota Archaeological Society
© 1989 Minnesota Archaeological Society
Table of Contents
In 1983, the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) began an extensive archaeological investigation of the central Minneapolis riverfront. This work was initially required by Section 106 of the Historic Preservation Act of 1966 because federal funds were to be used on the West River Parkway project (Figure 1). Although no federal funds were ultimately used for the construction, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) agreed to do the necessary archaeological work in order to minimize harm to sites. Over the last seven years, the MPRB has financed most of the archaeological work done on the riverfront, although Hennepin County has also sponsored some survey and excavation in association with the Hennepin Avenue Bridge replacement.
In Volume 48 of The Minnesota Archaeologist (Anfinson 1989), the historical background and potential archaeological sites along the central Minneapolis riverfront were discussed. Volume 49 discusses the problems and methods of actually doing archaeology in the heart of a modern urban center. It summarizes the results of survey, excavation, and monitoring from 1983 through 1990 as well as discussing urban archaeology in general and the interpretive plans and potentials for the Minneapolis riverfront.
Archaeology in urban areas is presented with problems and opportunities not generally encountered elsewhere. Cities feature intensive land use resulting in complex stratigraphies and dense artifact concentrations. Formal and informal zoning results in discrete social and economic areas reflected in the use of space and artifact distribution. The presence of a modern, living city complicates attempts at excavation because functioning facilities such as buildings, roads, and utility lines restrict access to many sites. Complex land ownership and insurance regulations may further limit site access. The archaeological work along the Minneapolis central riverfront is a good illustration of the difficulty and complexity of doing archaeology in a modern city.
The urban archaeologist should not only be familiar with excavating structures and identifying artifacts, but must understand the characteristics of urban systems and be familiar with a number of industrial processes and technologies. For instance, the archaeology of the central Minneapolis riverfront involves the technologies of waterpower, steampower, coal gasification, and electrical generation. It involves industries such as lumber milling, flour milling, textile milling, paper making, ironworking, and brewing. It involves transportation systems utilizing railroads, automobiles, streetcars, and horses. It involves street construction, factory construction, home construction, bridge construction, and dam construction. It involves sewer systems, water systems, and gas lines.
There are no undisturbed natural landscapes along the central riverfront. The waterfall has been covered, the river channelized, terraces have been filled and graded, the riverbanks moved outward, and the bedrock cliffs have been quarried back. It is a cultural terrain of extreme complexity and great archaeological potential. While most of the structures erected during the area's industrial century are now gone, extensive railroad development in much of the area and the subsequent lack of immediate redevelopment in other localities preserved subsurface remains that exist today as archaeological sites. The current re-development of the central riverfront has destroyed many archaeological sites over the last 10 years and many other sites are now threatened.
These sites represent a diverse cross section of the industries, businesses, small neighborhoods, and transportation facilities that once flourished along the central riverfront. The sites offer the city of Minneapolis a unique opportunity to preserve and interpret an important and interesting segment of its past. Besides offering archaeologists opportunities to explore poorly known aspects of our recent past, the preservation and interpretation of the sites make the riverfront more attractive for business and recreation.
Some may define a city as any incorporated town even if only a hundred people live there. Others think of a city as a major population center where people live by the hundreds of thousands or millions. When we talk about urban archaeology, we generally are talking about doing archaeology not just in a city, but in a large population center.
Urban centers have been defined in many different ways. The Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) has tentatively defined an urban center as "a nexus of economic and political activity that acts as a significant magnet for a widespread hinterland." While this may be an adequate definition for scholarly purposes, it does not really give us a good idea about what an urban center is and what the implications are for doing archaeology in such a setting.
While it may be impossible to suggest a definition of urban center that is universally accepted, it is somewhat easier to define characteristics that most urban centers exhibit. Understanding these characteristics is essential to properly doing urban archaeology since they guide the research problems we address, the methods we employ, and the problems we will encounter.
The characteristics of cities can be grouped into five basic categories: demographic, economic, socio-political, structural, and ideational
Demographic characteristics include the presence of a large population, the presence of ethnically diverse groups, and activity segregation due to both formal and informal zoning (i.e., residential areas, commercial areas, industrial areas).
Economic characteristics include only a small percentage of the population involved with food production, a service and trade center for a surrounding region, non-extractive manufacturing facilities, national and international corporate bases, truck farming in the adjacent area, stockyards, and a variety of transportation links to other urban centers (e.g., large airport, large railroad depot, interstate highway).
Socio-political characteristics include the specialization of labor, an obvious class structured society, less personal relationships, one of a kind state or federal institutions, and a center of political activity.
Structural characteristics include the presence of monumental architecture, mass transportation systems such as streetcars, and major transportation corridors.
Ideational characteristics include a center of innovation, multiple religious institutions, and the center of "moderness" within a region.
In order to deal with the theoretical, methodological, and practical aspects of doing archaeology in the modern cities of the North America, a new field of archaeology has appeared over the last 20 years. It is called urban archaeology. While archaeologists have long dealt with the archaeology of cities especially the prehistoric beginnings of urbanism, industrial cities were long considered too recent to be of interest to archaeologists. Archaeology was done in modern cities prior to advent of a formal discipline of urban archaeology, but it was largely restricted to examining ancient artifacts and features that were encountered by urban improvement projects.
The archaeology of industrial centers began in Europe in the mid-twentieth century. These investigations initially focused on aspects of the industrial revolution rather than urban systems as a whole. Since many factories were located in cities, archaeologists gradually began to take an interest in the urban fabric itself not just individual factories or the ancient artifacts and features that cities disturbed.
What is now known as urban archaeology arose in North America during the 1960s due to the requirements of federally mandated environmental review (what is commonly called cultural resource management or CRM). These federal requirements were coupled with the realization that the study of modern cultural systems can help us interpret even the distant past and the fact that many American cities were finally considered old enough to be worthy of archaeological study. Remnants of earlier versions of cities suddenly became significant archaeological sites.
Urban archaeology in North America had its theoretical and methodological roots in historical archaeology which prior to 1970 focused almost exclusively on the colonial period. Urban archaeology in its infancy in North America was largely restricted to eastern cities where significant colonial events had occurred. As historic preservation laws took effect, construction projects in cities across the United States were required to consider the impacts on the surficially "invisible" archaeological sites as well as standing historic structures. It soon became clear that significant archaeological sites of urban America were not limited to just the colonial period and just eastern cities.
While urban archaeology today borrows its basic method and theory from historic archaeology, it shares some features with industrial archaeology. Industrial archaeology has become a popular pursuit both within and outside of urban contexts. There even exists a Society of Industrial Archaeology that publishes a regular journal and newsletter.
Much of what is called industrial archaeology is not archaeology in a strict definition, however, because industrial archaeology does not employ archaeological method and theory and is not interested in explaining the larger aspects of human behavior. Industrial archaeology has been defined as "a field of study concerned with investigating, surveying, recording, and, in some cases, with preserving industrial monuments...The study is 'archae-ological' in so far as it deals with physical objects and requires field work..." (Buchanan 1978:53).
The catch phrase of urban archaeology is "the city as a site." What this means is that the entire urban area should be considered as an integrated unit rather than each building location within the city being considered as a separate site. Individual locations within a city can only be explained in terms of their relationships with the workings of the larger city. Interaction and integration is ultimately what as city is all about, and, hence, what urban archaeology is all about.
Although the potentials of urban archaeology were recognized about 20 years ago (Fairbanks 1968; Salwen 1973), it is still not a well known aspect of archaeological study. While there have been numerous surveys and excavations in cities all across North America, accessible reports of these projects are relatively scarce.
Very few articles on urban archaeology have appeared in American Antiquity, the journal of the Society for American Archaeology. Occasional articles have appeared in the Society of Historical Archaeology journal Historical Archaeology (e.g., Dickens and Bowen 1980; Zierden and Calhoun 1986) and in the CRM journal American Archaeology (e.g.,Honerkamp and Fairbanks 1984; Roberts 1984). A few articles have appeared in edited volumes reviewing the field of archaeology (e.g., Staski 1982). Entire volumes dedicated to urban archaeology are not common with Dickens (1982), North American Archaeologist Volume 3-3 (1982), American Archaeologist 5-3 (1985), and Staski (1987) notable exceptions.
Besides suffering from a lack of publications, urban archaeology also suffers from a lack of theoretical background and substantive historical research. Most articles discussing urban archaeology refer to archaeology that has been done in cities rather than the archaeology of cities. If urban archaeology is to take its place as a valid discipline, more attention must be paid to the fact that urban archaeology is more than just doing archaeology in an urban context.
Both inside and outside of the archaeological profession, there are many people who question the usefulness of doing archaeology of the relatively recent past. Why archaeologically study a time period that is relatively well documented?
The historical record for the nineteenth and early twentieth century has many gaps. In the recent past, certain groups of people could not write. The people who did write, usually did not write about the people who could not write. Even literate groups did not write about all aspects of their particular way of life, such as what their daily lives were like; what James Deetz (1977) would call "small things, forgotten." There has also been an incomplete survival of records.
Due to the nature of the resources and the written records that were kept, urban archaeology can appropriately address certain archaeological problems. The archaeology of urban areas may be burdened with difficulties not encountered in rural areas, but it is also presented opportunities to study interesting aspects of our past. Research questions can involve:
- changes in technology
- reconstructing past lifeways
- reconstructing sequences and
- social relationships
- economic strategies
- transformations of cultural
and physical environments
Besides addressing the research problems of interest to historians and social scientists, urban archaeology has many other benefits to the citizens of a city. By relocating and exposing the actual remnants of past structures or activities, interpretation becomes much more interesting; signs can read "Here are the remains of ..." rather than "... once stood here." Physical remains let us literally touch our past.
The process of doing archaeology interests many people and an active dig can attract visitors to an area; visitors that will use public facilities and commercial establishments. Citizens should be allowed to participate in digs so they gain both a better understanding of archaeology and their cultural heritage. Archaeology can even lower construction costs by determining where substantial building foundations, poorly consolidated fill, and possible pollution problems exist.
Most archaeology done in cities has been due to the demands of cultural resource management rather than academic interest. Many eastern cities have archaeologists on their city staff, but in the midwest, urban archaeology is done on a project specific basis and is largely restricted to those projects involving federal funds. Even in large cities such as Minneapolis with Historic Preservation Commissions (HPC), the archaeological remnants of the city's past are largely ignored since they are largely "invisible."
Urban archaeology will come of age when cities and archaeologists do it not because it has to be done, but because it is worth doing. University archaeological field schools should occasionally be taught in the city. Besides helping to preserve and interpret a city's cultural heritage, it would be convenient to laboratory facilities and housing, it represents an appropriate training ground for dealing with structural remains, and it would be good preparation for the archaeologists of the future who will have to increasingly deal with the archaeology of cities.
The archaeology done on the Minneapolis riverfront has not only made the archaeological remnants of the city's past visible, it has made the past visible. The remnants of the "mill city" are more than just memories of a time when lumber milling and flour milling controlled the economic life of the city. The riverfront archaeological remains link pictures and memories to a tangible reality that once was.
© 1999 The Institute for Minnesota Archaeology
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Updated 29 Jun 1999