Archaeologists dig up details of Cedar Rapids’ distant past


It’s hard to tell which discovery that archaeologist David Benn is most excited about: The treasure trove of more-than-century-old bottles, trinkets, pieces of china, coins, nails, animal bones and much more that he and his digging crew unearthed here this fall in an effort to unravel the story of late 19th century working-class Cedar Rapids? 

Thousands of artifacts were unearthed by a team of archeologists from Bear Creek Archeology in Cresco during a dig in Cedar Rapids recently [Credit: Bryon Houlgrave]

Or the portion of a single spear point shaped from chert that the crew found 8 feet below a city parking lot along the Cedar River and that Benn said comes from prehistoric Cedar Rapids of some 9,500 years ago? 

He calls the find of the Hardaway spear point — named for a discovery site in North Carolina — “significant” and a rare event in Iowa and the Midwest. 

“We found some neat stuff, both historic and prehistoric,” said Benn, 63, research coordinator and principal investigator for Bear Creek Archaeology of Cresco. 

Benn and his Bear Creek team are working under a $295,000 contract with the Army Corps of Engineers to survey, dig and test and then recover and preserve artifacts from an area that the Corps will disturb as it builds a new system of levees and flood walls to protect the city from a repeat of the city’s 2008 flood. 

The archaeological work is taking place on just the east side of river, which is the Corps’ focus for now. However, city officials are committed to finding local and state funds to also build west-side flood protection, which will prompt an archaeological study there if funds are found. 

Earlier survey work of Benn’s team guided it this fall to dig in four spots along the east side of the river: in the park at First Avenue East near the Tree of Five Seasons; in the parking lot next to the GreatAmerica Building; in the city parking lot between Ninth and 12th avenues SE; and mostly in former backyards from the 12th Avenue Bridge to the edge of the former Sinclair packing plant site. 

Prehistoric items 

The rare find of the Hardaway spear point came from undisturbed soil about 8 feet below the city parking lot. The estimated age, about 9,500 years old, comes from its similarity to spear points dated from more extensively studied sites, he said. 

“This looks like a temporary camp where a couple of guys on a hunting trail stopped and camped,” said Benn, who holds a doctoral degree in anthropology and archaeology from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “It looks like one of the guys was refurbishing his weapon. The spear point broke. He took it off and put a new one on.” 

Benn said 9,500 years ago, people had been in Iowa for a couple thousand years, and he described the Hardaway spear point found from that time as very thin and technologically advanced over projectile points from an earlier time. 

“It was a shock,” he said when the prehistoric artifact turned up. 

The dig also turned up prehistoric pieces of pottery from the Late Woodland Period of 1,000 to 1,500 years ago and the Middle Woodland period of about 2,000 years ago. 

Early settlers 

Much of the Benn team’s work focused on the historic, not prehistoric, in the hunt for artifacts of the earliest settlers in Cedar Rapids in the 1840s and of the first established residents in the city’s early working-class neighborhoods of 1870 to the 1890s in around the former Sinclair plant. 

Assorted alcohol and toiletry bottles were unearthed in Cedar Rapids during a recent dig by the Bear Creek Archeology team. The dig unearthed thousands of artifacts from working class communities that lived along the river in the 19th century [Credit: Bryon Houlgrave]

The archaeological digs, he added, necessarily focus on backyard privies and “middens” or outdoor dumps for household kitchen waste because both were burial sites for much of what a household discarded. 

The organic material long ago decomposed into what Benn terms “night soil,” which his crew dug into to see what was there. Whiskey, beer, patent medicine and liniment bottles often ended up at the bottom of the privy, he said. 

The middens yielded bones from an assortment of fish and animals, including cows pigs, sheep, chickens, turkeys, raccoons, squirrels and rabbits, he said. 

Literally, thousands of artifacts were recovered and sent to Bear Creek’s laboratory in Cresco for cleaning, sorting and analyzing — all to help shape a future report to the Corps on working-class Cedar Rapids and on the city’s prehistory. 

Working class 

Benn said people can come to think they know about a place’s past, but he said memories misfire and written histories can often focus on civic leaders and leave the working class out. 

“We’re going to know a lot about the working class people who built Cedar Rapids,” said Benn of his team’s work. “People know what they remember. But do they really know what’s gone on? Do they really remember what grandma served on Sunday? Where the china came from? What their role in society was or in the economic system? 

“You have to know these things from the bottom up. You have to look at the little stuff and work your way up to the big picture, the big, social, cultural picture.” 

Source: The Gazette [December 10, 2011]