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Urban Archaeology
 


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The archaeology of cities has been going on for a long time. Rome, Babylon, Pompeii, Alexandria, and Mexico City are all cities where urban archaeology has been undertaken. Only in recent times, however, have the sprawling North American metropolises been considered fit subjects for archaeological research. Yet every city is in fact a huge archaeological site. It is a place where people lived and worked, built, demolished, built again, and imposed changes on the landscape which forever alter the natural topography. Lying under our city streets and sidewalks, warehouses and parking lots, is the history of our cities, in mute layers containing the remnants of lives gone by. Clues to the past can be found in historical records, and so it is historical archaeologists -- those who use both text and artifact in their quest to understand human life in earlier times -- who delve beneath concrete and asphalt to uncover what lies beneath.

Historical archaeology in its early days tended to focus on sites associated with major events in American history -- military fortifications and battlefields, early trading posts, or the stately homes of the rich and famous. Neglected until relatively recent times was the investigation of ordinary people's lives -- of the poor, the immigrants, slaves, ordinary laborers, and the journeyman craftspeople who made up the bulk of the population, especially in North American cities. The past two decades have seen, however, a growing number of archaeological projects, material culture studies, socioeconomic analyses, urban studies programs, and the like, all aimed at investigating the important majority of our ancestors who left little in the way of written records to mark their passing.

Such assessment is especially important when one considers the incredible rate of change that immigrant and native-born Americans experienced in the period between the Civil War and World War I. During that time the great North American city was born and developed, with ever-increasing industrial growth fed by a network of steel rails that spanned the continent and reached into thousands of rural centers. Concurrently, the United States developed from a combined agricultural, small business, and small industry economy into a full-fledged industrial power ready to take its place on the world stage.

Since the 1970s social historians, cultural anthropologists, urban studies experts, and most recently environmental historians have sought means to explore the lifeways experienced by ordinary Americans in this era that saw the transformation of nearly every aspect of their life and work. In the Twin Cities archaeological excavations along the Minneapolis river front have revealed layer after layer of industrial and technological change - from the vast deposits of sawdust left by the lumber industry to the intricate network of canals, tunnels, and spillways that fed power to flour mills, and later to the generators of hydroelectricity that allowed Minneapolis to push away from the river and into the suburbs. See Archaeology of the Central Minneapolis Riverfront, Parts 1 and 2, by Scott F. Anfinson.

Archaeology has also begun to shed light on the everyday life of working and middle-class people in both Minneapolis and St. Paul during the decades before and after the turn of the century.

See:
Federal Building and United States Courthouse Site
Bridgehead Area B (Federal Reserve Bank)
Original Hamline University Site
Washington Street Residential District.

 
 


 

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Updated 04 Dec 1999