Hamline University excavation offers window to the past, perspective for the present

Hamline professor at a dig site
Hamline University professor Brian Hoffman records the details of the dig site using a grid method, before groundcrews rebury the site
Megan Burks | MPR News

Every couple of years, Hamline University lets anthropology department chair Brian Hoffman and his students tear up the campus lawn and dig for treasure.

It's a hands-on learning project. The hole becomes their archaeology classroom. The treasure: remnants of a St. Paul home that once stood there.

This summer, Hoffman and his students completed their largest excavation yet, opening up a hole near the corner of Hewitt Avenue and Pascal Street about the size of a modest bedroom. The only thing protecting it from the outside world is some orange plastic fencing.

dig site at Hamline
This summer, Brian Hoffman and his students have been excavating the backyard of an 1880s farmhouse that once stood at Hewitt Avenue and Simpson Street in St. Paul. The dig site is an open trench in the middle of a campus lawn. Hoffman says neighbors routinely stop by to learn about it.
Megan Burks | MPR News

“We do have a lot of people from the neighborhood stop by as we’re working, and that’s something we love,” Hoffman said. “And I have talked to people who say, ‘Yeah, we sometimes come after you’re gone and we lift up the tarps and check on how it’s going.’”

“That might not be something that you would recommend for archaeological excavations just anywhere, but here, we’re really happy to share this with everybody,” he said.

In addition to training future archaeologists, it’s part of a larger community archaeology program that lets nearby residents get their hands dirty uncovering their neighborhood's past.

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In this case, the students have been piecing together the story of the Warners. The southern Minnesota farming family settled at what was then 830 Simpson St. in 1886. At the time, Hamline University was just getting its start. The home would have looked out on campus buildings and prairie.

an old photo of Hamline's campus
Hamline University professor Brian Hoffman holds a photo of the campus in the late 1880s. The area was a prairie before becoming the Hamline-Midway neighborhood of St. Paul. The photo captures what would have been the view from the farmhouse he and his students have been excavating.
Megan Burks | MPR News

It later became a boarding house run by a Swedish immigrant, then a dormitory that housed students during the 1918 pandemic. In 1945, the house was moved to make way for the university president’s house. The dirt pulled from what would become that house’s basement was piled up in the backyard, where the students studied this summer.

“From an archaeological perspective, that’s great, because what they did is they created a time capsule,” Hoffman said.

That time capsule contained a rubbish pit with old toothbrush heads, animal bones, doll parts, broken ceramics, broken glassware and other artifacts of daily living.

A box of historic items
A box displays items such as toothbrush heads, doll parts and broken glassware and ceramics unearthed from the backyard of an 1880s farmhouse that once stood on Hewitt Street in St. Paul, Minn., where Hamline University is now located.
Megan Burks | MPR News

“When you’re working on sites that are not very old, generally you don’t find things that are a surprise. It’s more of what you learn from the findings,” Hoffman said. “So we know we’re going to find a lot of ceramics and bottles. How can we analyze those bottles and ceramics to understand changes in consumerism between late 19th and early 20th centuries? Because that’s an important historical trend.”

Hamline University senior Sarah Ziskin is focusing on the animal bones. She’s studying cut marks on the bones to find out whether the Warners raised and processed their own animals or went to a professional butcher. That would tell her more about the family’s socio-economic status.

“At first, when you’re just digging them up, it’s kind of hard to connect them to the lives that they were associated with. But then, taking closer looks at them in the lab, you start to learn about the people who lived here,” Ziskin said.

Hamline student
Hamline University senior Sarah Ziskin looks for an artifact she and her classmates pulled from an excavation of an 1880s farmhouse in St. Paul. Ziskin is studying cut marks on animal bones from the site to understand whether the Warners, who moved there from southern Minnesota in 1886, raised their own animals and processed them on site or got their meat from a professional butcher.
Megan Burks | MPR News

For example, one of the pork bones has chew marks from a dog. A newspaper clipping from the time links a lost St. Bernard to the house.

“We know a lot about the 1890s, and so why is it important to learn about the daily lives of this family? That is one of the things that archaeology brings — it democratizes history. It tells the stories of everyday people,” Hoffman said.

And he added that this particular dig helped him and his students reflect on the present, knowing that some inhabitants of the house were there during the 1918 pandemic.

“We’re living through a historic period, and 100 years from now, maybe what we did in 2017 nobody cares about. But what we went through in 2020, people are going to want to know about it,” he said. “So what would we want to tell the students of 100 years from now?”