Posted by: Brian | January 3, 2010

Church Site – the Final Days

Class Photo 2009 (missing Lauren and Ashley)

Almost a month has now passed since we wrapped up the excavation at the Hamline Methodist Church site. Our university’s landscaping crew did us an incredible favor again this year and back-filled our hole. Anyone that has ever spent a day hauling dirt by bucket loads to fill in their excavation will know just how lucky we were to have this help. We especially needed assistance this year because we just barely finished the fieldwork before winter weather hit Minnesota hard. Frozen soils and nearly frozen fingers made difficult drawing the last wall profiles and floor plans. We were lucky that we got everything recorded given these conditions.

Josh (with Adam in the background) using the drawing grid.

Luck was a big part of this dig. We were lucky to have a late start to winter. We were lucky to get so much help, especially at the end. And we were really lucky to make so many significant finds – from foundation walls to stained glass windows to children’s artifacts.

Final view of our excavation. On the right our block excavation reached to the basement where we found a large tank. On the right we have the limestone foundation and an entryway foundation.

What strikes me when I look at the final view of our excavation is how lucky we were in the placement of our units.  We nearly perfectly framed the entryway foundation. So with minimal digging we maximized our exposure of this feature. Identifying the entryway would have been more challenging had our excavation been moved one meter to the north. We would not been able to see that this second foundation connected to the main wall – so I would not have been able to exclude the possibility of a second structure.

I consider the entryway to be one of our more important discoveries. We now know something about the backside of the church and how people used this area. The entryway also contained a particularly rich deposit from the fire. The partially intact stained glass window may have been better preserved because it fell into the entryway where few people walked after the fire.

For me personally, one of the most interesting artifacts we found came from the entryway. It was the last minutes of our dig – getting dark and hard to see. I was trying to decide whether we could finish excavating the burn deposit inside the entryway (we didn’t). I asked my students to move so that I could dig and get a feel for the situation. Once I started digging I realized there wasn’t time to finish. A thought ran through my mind that the corner is a good place to look for stuff, so I decided to quickly remove the burn deposit in the southeast corner of the entryway and that would be the end of our dig. I scraped away a little of the charcoal rich soil and out of the blackness emerged this white, curvy object. It was too dark to see clearly, but I knew it wasn’t the normal fire-fragmented material we were finding. Brushing it off, I immediately realized we had a small, porcelain (or bisque) doll. My mind flooded with questions. Why was this doll left in the corner of the entryway? All that remained was the head, torso and arms (no hair, clothing, or legs), but the doll didn’t appear to be fire damaged. It was at the bottom of the burn deposit – so it had to have been left prior to the fire. Had some young girl left her doll in the entryway? Had she somehow lost the doll underneath the steps? Was she saddened when she heard of the fire and realized she would never see her doll again? It was a brief moment of connection between myself and my thoughts and this young girl 85 years ago.

Doll recovered from Church entryway – a little dirty, but otherwise undamaged by the fire.

It was fun to find the doll (although I felt a little guilty for bumping my students out of the dig just before the doll turned up). I suspect that this toy may be related to the Sunday School artifacts we found inside the church in this area. Perhaps most striking of these artifacts are the large number of child-style scissors (the kind with round safety tips). Most of these scissors were found in the upper portion of the burned deposit and not on the basement floor. I now suspect that this stratigraphic position of the scissors indicates that the Sunday School room was on the first floor (or at least was the place where the scissors were stored), not in the basement.

Jamie and Josh mapping the church interior.

Chris Cleaning Tank

Chris cleaning the tank we found inside the church.

The basement in this portion of the church instead seems to have been the location of plumbing and perhaps heating utilities. The most dramatic evidence of this function was a large tank. I don’t know anything about tanks, but this one appears to have been designed for heavy duty use – with lots of rivets. A hole at one end and a number of smaller pipes adjacent to the tank indicate it probably held water. My guess is that it was a hot water expansion tank. What’s most interesting about the tank is not it’s use, but what we found on top of it. A number of thin boards were compressed on to the tank. We removed several of these boards on the last day of our dig. Most we discarded (along with tons of other wood fragments recovered in our excavations), but on the sample we saved there were a large number of what appear to be charred spruce needles. I was shocked when I first saw these needles, since the fire was supposed to have started as the result of Christmas decorations left on a furnace in the basement. Our excavations inside of the church seem to have uncovered all the components of the Christmas fire story. The burned needles on top of a tank perhaps in a furnace room – even signs of children (who supposedly are guilty of leaving the decorations on the furnace). It’s a bit of luck to find burned spruce needles, which clearly are from Christmas 1925. Put all our finds together and we have a pretty good story to tell – which is a good result for any archaeology project. Like I said, we had a lot of luck this year.

Jamie cleaning the south wall of our church interior excavation.


  1. Wow. Mystery solved. It is wonderful when stories like this match up…

    One thing we did at Saints’ Rest was bring in the local fire marshall to look at our burn evidence…they were super excited to help. It was slightly more exciting for them to look at it when we were in the field, but I wonder if your local FD might be able to help shed some similar insight with the evidence you’ve gathered?

    What a fantastic field season you had. I’m looking forward to the rest of the analysis!

  2. Brian: we’ve also relocated our campus archaeology blog to, if you want to update your blogroll!!

  3. Teriffic story, and what fine training for students! A wonderful activity for all, and proof positive that we don’t all need to be with Schleimann at Troy! Good to, using the local fire marshall. A lot of non-archaeologists have knowledge that can add to the sum of all ou ours.

    • Thanks Steve, it’s a fun course for me to teach.

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