"Find Money to Finish the Dig"

Nov. 22, 2002 Des Moines Register

Here's a bit of irony: As DM experiences an urban renewal on the south side of the downtown business district, it is learning more about the city's history. That is thanks, in part, to city officials who let archaeologists get in ahead of the contractors.

Archaeologist have been burrowing into the site of the future Science Center of Iowa, west of the DM River and south of Court Av. There, scientists have unearthed some of the most important historical features ever found in the area where Ft. DM was established 160 years ago.

Among other things, they have found a late-19th-century coin; an inkwell; and pieces of ceramic dishes likely dating from the 1840's; animal bones from someone's dinner' a bottle with "Wakefield's Blackberry Balsam" embossed on the side; and two perfume bottles, one containing what is presumed to be perfume. There are also flakes of pottery, evidence of early native occupants dating back 900 to 1200 years.

These discoveries may seem insignificant, but they are vital pieces of the puzzle archaeologists and historians have been able to put together. They tell the story of Ft. DM, established at the intersectin of the DM and Raccoon Rivers in 1843. The fort site later was occupied by civilians who founded what is now the capital city of Iowa.

For historians, the most exciting discoveries are limestone and brick foundations, a cistern or well, and a privy pit - all of which were part of the original fort, the early city, or both. Experts aren't sure what to make of the limestone foundation, but it is almost certainly a piece of the fort.

What little is known about the fort comes largely from military documents and early plat maps. In recent years, however, historicans have learned a lot more and confirmed suppositions by getting into the ground. The site of old Ft. DM and the original city is a treasure trove because the area was overlaid with landfill, which preserved foundations and bits and pieces of history discarded there.

This archaeological work was prompted by construction of a new road and other downtown development in the city's birthplace. Historic-impact studies are required for projects receiving state or federal road money. In other projects without such a requirement, DM officials voluntarily gave archaeologists access to development sites. The city has contributed cash and in-kind services to the work. The rest came from state grants.

For that, the city deserves a round of applause. Still, the archaelogists are in a race against time: There is more to be done to document the discovery for future study, but it's not clear if work will be finished before winter sets in and money runs out. City and state officials were scrambling this week to find money to finish the project.

It is well worth the effort. A city must move forward, but it should also be mindful of what has gone before.

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