'Old Tabernacle' excavation at Provo temple site called a once-in-a-lifetime experience

Published: Friday, March 30 2012 6:13 p.m. MDT

BYU graduate student Charmaine Thompson works at the site of the original Provo Tabernacle, built between 1856 and 1867, in Provo on Friday, March 30, 2012.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

PROVO — The Provo Tabernacle was one of the first landmarks Lindsay Johansson fell in love with when she came to Brigham Young University as a student.

On Friday she worked in an archaeological dig in the shadow of the tabernacle and reflected on how a tragedy became an opportunity for her, other students and ultimately, for the city of Provo, which has unearthed a significant piece of its history.

The tragedy was the fire that gutted the tabernacle in December 2010. A redemptive high came six months ago when LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson announced to the church in its October general conference that the burned-out shell would be rebuilt as a temple.

The opportunity for Johansson, now a graduate student in archaeology, soon followed as classroom lessons were put to use just a mile from campus.

An even older tabernacle, built in the 1850s and ’60s, once stood just north of the present structure, which was built in the 1880s and ’90s. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints assigned an archaeology team from church-owned BYU to excavate and document the foundation of the "Old Tabernacle" before work on the site advanced to convert the shell of the newer tabernacle into a temple.

Through the winter and into Spring, Johansson and other BYU archaeology students have been excavating the foundation of the Old Tabernacle, which was erased from the landscape when it was razed in 1919.

Timbers and other parts of the structure were carried away and used elsewhere around town. Adobe bricks that had been covered in stucco were sold on the street to anyone who wanted them.

The tabernacle's bell is now the Old "Y" Bell, mounted at the southwest corner of the Marriott Center on the BYU campus. Stones that were quarried by hand and hauled from nearby canyons in carts in the 1850s were dragged away and used in other buildings nearby.

Foundation stones below grade level were left in place and buried beneath what, for decades, has been a small park. The foundation may have remained there — unseen and largely unknown — if it weren't for the events that led to the Provo City Center Temple project.

Sara Stauffer, another BYU archaeology graduate student, has been part of the excavation project since students first used ground-penetrating radar to discover what major structures remained beneath the park. For her, the "spirit of the whole place" comes alive as she and the others have uncovered the foundation and collected artifacts found underground: horseshoes, scissors, pins, bottles and other remnants.

She said her imagination carries her to the people who built and used the Old Tabernacle, and life in their times. "It's been a really great experience."

The archaeology team has kept a collection of the retrieved items near the construction fence where onlookers gather to see the dig progress.

"We have a lot of people stop and tell us they know where parts of the building went or share stories about their ancestors who went to church here," said Richard Talbot, director of BYU's Office of Public Archaeology. "This has been sacred ground since the Old Tabernacle was dedicated in 1867."

He called the project "entirely unique" in the BYU department's 30-year history. Students can be in class one hour and digging the next. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to come and see something that we may not have had the chance to see."

The archaeology assignment from the church less than six months ago put the students and their supervisors on a tight schedule. "We were asked to dig as much as possible, but under the time frame it was understood we might not have as much time as we wanted," Talbot said. "But good weather during the winter has made it so we were able to do more than we expected."

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