Students, residents excavate downtown

The dig site will become a 27-story condominium within months.

Jared Roddy

Last week, University graduate student Kent Bakken dug into his neighbors’ past.

The Elliot Park resident participated in the excavation of an abandoned lot on the 900 block of Portland Avenue.

Bakken joined other neighborhood residents and about 10 University students and graduates who helped excavate the lot, which will become a 27-story condominium within months.

“This is the best job in the world,” said Thea Fuerstenberg, a recent anthropology graduate. “You get to dig and pickaxe and play in the mud.”

The dig site focused partially on the home of Louis Duensing. Built in 1874 and demolished in 1948, the foundation peeks out above the surface of the now-barren land. Old-growth weeds and graffiti on low buildings ring the site as the Minneapolis skyline towers reflectively in the distance.

Some of the excavators are experienced diggers; others, like Laila Schirrmeister, are just interested amateurs.

“Right off the bat we were finding really nice pottery with fancy glazes,” the retired set designer said. “Over there we found a piece of fabric that looks like silk; it still has its color.”

It’s this reaction and initiative that Bakken said he hopes will help people realize they are standing on history.

“What you’ve got is all these vacant lots in east downtown and Elliot Park and this is the type of thing that’s under probably 90 percent of them,” Bakken said.

In the 1850s in Minneapolis, the west bank of the Mississippi River served as a military reservation. When it was opened to the public, Bakken said the population skyrocketed.

According to census data, the population of Minneapolis reached 46,887 in 1880. Five years later that number ballooned to 129,200.

Bakken and his team of urban archaeologists are interested in how these people lived their daily lives.

“It sounds silly, but we want to find answers to what life was like in early Minneapolis,” Bakken said. “We can look at the ceramics and china and porcelains and say this was a well-to-do house or maybe this was a house scraping by.”

The group has found scores of animal bones, which archaeologists said meant the people ate well. Other urban archaeological sites in Minneapolis suggest the same; they have also shown the inhabitants to be healthy and parasite-free, despite the lack of sewers or public waste disposal.

“As you can imagine, it smelled a lot different in the city back then,” Bakken said.

Most important, volunteers said, was the opportunity for residents to get a feel for what came before them and to experience what goes into an archaeological dig.

“The digging gives the workers a real sense of camaraderie, and working like this can also give the residents a sense of ownership,” said Amy Selvius, a University staff member working toward an anthropology degree.

Scraping at the exposed section of the limestone foundation with a trowel, Selvius said she had found out about the dig through the anthropology listserv.

Wandering between the screen sifters and several roped-off excavation squares, Schirrmeister said one of the perks was being able to participate in all aspects of the dig.

“And you don’t get the opportunity to dig in downtown Minneapolis all that often,” she added.