SALT LAKE CITY — Archaeologists at the University of Utah's Fort Douglas are "geeking out" over an accidental unearthing of historical significance.
Contractors digging a utility trench about four years ago accidentally uncovered and partially destroyed parts of a sandstone foundation for what is believed to have been military barracks built sometime between 1862 and 1875.
"We don't get Civil War archaeology in Utah to begin with, and definitely not in such an accessible location," said Sheri Ellis, an archaeological consultant with Certus Environmental Solutions who has been asked to help the Utah Division of State History oversee and determine the significance of what is found at excavation sites all along Potter Street.
The controlled excavation on the site of the National Historic Landmark is to help mitigate the damage done by the trench-diggers, but also to maybe fill in the gaps of what is left out of history books, specifics pertaining to the lives of the soldiers and their families who stayed there at one time.
Archaeologists and interested public have helped during the dig, which is open until at least Friday, to uncover various items by sifting through the dirt at the site, helping to piece together a story of a largely forgotten chunk of time.
"It's a wonderful way to involve the public in their history … to bring history to life," said Mike Mower, deputy chief of staff for Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who stopped by the site on Saturday.
Random buttons, pieces of broken glass, a blackened but intact inkwell, shards of metal and discarded bullet casings, military insignia, broken chicken and cow bones, enamel and ceramic dishes and other paraphernalia were among items found Saturday in what they believe was a small trash deposit at the site, either used to level the ground under a structure or the result of a structure that burned down, Ellis said.
The dry soil in Utah helps to preserve such things.
"You don't know what you're going to find with something like this," she said. "You really don't know what you're getting into and plans can change along the way depending on what you find."
Ellis said each well-documented discovery provides "clues about the life that existed here."
Not a whole lot is known about the people who established Fort Douglas, except that they were volunteer soldiers who came to Utah under orders of a colonel in the Civil War to establish a military presence in the state. Ellis said there is evidence of women and children having lived nearby, denoting that entire families were brought to the site at one time.
And land where the Huntsman Cancer hospital sits is believed to have been used as a shooting range because of artifacts that have been found there.
Around 1875, the old wooden barracks were torn down and new, sandstone buildings were erected near the same site — still standing at Fort Douglas today.
The historical foundation formations unearthed for the time being are also sandstone, but contain much larger and unrefined pieces than what was used to construct the military office buildings. They are right outside the Fort Douglas Military Museum on Potter Street.
"All of this stuff is super exciting to find," said Chris Merritt, an archaeologist and deputy state historic preservation officer. "It tells the stories of the soldiers who were here, about the person or how they lived."
"We're geeking out a little over here," he said.
Archaeology, Ellis said, has put her in places she never would've gone on her own, providing a broader perspective and historical context for how neighborhoods and cities were shaped.1 comment on this story
"It makes the world more interesting," she said.
The public is invited to view the site, at 32 Potter Street, at Fort Douglas, Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. until the site is closed on Sept. 28.
SWCA, an environmental consulting firm, is leading the excavation and will collect, clean, label and process the artifacts found there for museum curation. A lot of the work being done requires meticulous documentation, experience and training. Everything found at the site will return to the museum for public display.