Archaeology bug bites city

BY IAN MURPHY | MARCH 28, 2014 5:00 AM

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Johnson County is home to an impressive array of archaeological sites, more than any other area in Iowa, according to an expert.

Bill Whittaker, a project archaeologist in the Office of the State Archaeologist, said there are more than 200 archaeological sites in a 3.1 mile area of the Museum of National History, where he spoke Thursday.

Two of the most recently discovered sites — Hubbard Park, discovered in February, and the site of new University of Iowa music facility, discovered in 2013 — have piqued public interest in archeology, Whittaker said.

“Since the 1860s, people have been conducting archaeology in and around the Iowa City area,” he said.” Right up until February of this year.”

Whittaker credited the Office of the State Archeologist’s location at the University of Iowa as a major factor in the number of the archeological sites in the area. There are moer than 1,400 sites in Johnson County.

Coins were found at the Hubbard Park site, which allow archaeologists to date the site to 1830 or later.

Whittaker said the location showed promise; archeologists found evidence of several foundations for houses that were either cleared by a flood in 1851 or leveled in the 1920s.

The flood in 1851 deposited a layer of silt over the park that locked in artifacts below it until construction crews installing a water main found the foundations.

Whittaker said the archaeologists will return to the park this summer because other remnants could still be there.

Another site accidently discovered by construction crews was a foundation to a cabin that may have belonged to a resident named John Morrow at the music-building site, at the intersection of Burlington and Clinton Streets.

The cabin would have made the plot the legal property of its owner, as the land laws at the time required a structure be built to confirm ownership, Whitaker said.

He said parts of the foundation had Native American trade beads found in them, which allowed archeologists to date the building to the 1830s.

Upon further excavation, Whittaker said six to seven cisterns, a hole in the ground that collects rainwater, and an outhouse were found.

He said an old 7-Up can and several intact whale-oil lamps were found in the privy.

Fifty plus community members and students attended the event.

“I’ve had a lifelong interest in archeology,” said Holmes Semken, a UI professor emeritus of paleontology. “I would have attended if it were in Sioux City or Des Moines.”

Julie Hoyer, who retired after many years at the Office of the State Archaeologist, said she may be called in to do lab work on the Hubbard Park artifacts, and she enjoys keeping up with the office’s activities.

Senior city planner Bob Miklo said his department, which oversees the historical preservation of Iowa City buildings and districts, does not work directly with the Office of the State Archeologist but said Iowa City has numerous buildings and districts on the national registry as well.

Overall, Whittaker said he is hopeful the high concentration in Johnson County could hint at similar numbers in other areas of the state.

“Iowa City shows the potential that Iowa has,” Whitaker said.

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