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Despite Pandemic, CSU Archaeology Students Dig In To Campus History During Field School

Colorado State University senior Kit Kelly is spending her summer digging a small patch of dirt on the CSU campus. It's part of the university's archaeological field school and an opportunity for anthropology majors like Kelly to get practical experience.

"A lot of people think they can do this and that they'll enjoy it, but then they get three days into digging and they're like, 'I never want to do this again,'" she said. "So that's why field school is so important because you need to know if you can handle this."

This summer, the class was supposed to be in Tennessee's Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park, but then COVID-19 struck. Because of the pandemic, the CSU program, now in its 51st year, almost didn't happen. Luckily, there was a second project the students could work on that was closer to home.

"It's referred to in a lot of documents as a 'claim building' or a 'claim shanty,'" said Edward Henry of the focus of their current excavation site. The CSU assistant professor of anthropology is director of this summer's field school. Earlier this year, his digital digging class had already used technology, including ground-penetrating radar, to locate the exact location of the building, which, as it turns out, was an integral part of CSU's history.

"They call it the 'claim building' not only because it claimed the land and space for campus, but it also insured or claimed that Fort Collins would have the land grant university when Colorado earned statehood," Henry said.

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Field school student Alyssa Melkus uses a screening box to sort through dirt from the claim building site.

Even though the territorial governor at the time had granted the city the right to build the agricultural college there, Fort Collins was slow to get started on construction, he said.

Before long, neighboring cities — including Greeley and Longmont — began petitioning for the school to be built in their communities, noting they could begin construction immediately. This forced Fort Collins to stake the location for the school. In 1874, the city broke ground on the first building in what is now Colorado State University.

"So, this is kind of an interesting spin that our research took — not only looking at the institutional history of CSU but broadly examining how the West was claimed," Henry said. "If you've seen the show 'Portlandia,' there's that episode, 'put a bird on it, it's art.' It's kind of like, 'put a house on it, it's mine.'"

Over the years, the building had several functions, including as a grainery, a home for CSU's first president, a chemistry lab and part of a greenhouse, said Henry, who hopes they'll find remnants from each. And there was an unexpected second find on the property.

"There's also a small feature that we found that's kind of to the west of the claim building and the greenhouse that's perfectly square and goes down and has straight sides," he said. "We think that this could be a privy."

While that may not sound very exciting, for those who know archaeology, a privy — which served as both a bathroom and a trash receptacle — can be a veritable gold mine of historical treasures.

"The privy would be the jackpot," said anthropology professor and field school co-director Mary Van Buren. "That's funny to people I'm sure. (But) because so much was deposited in privies and because it tends to be intact, or mostly intact, and because it's stratigraphically clear — it really provides the richest resource for trying to understand, especially people who lived in the claim building."

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Among the early finds on the site are a piece of frosted glass, a bone believed to be from a from a meal, a shell, a glass bead, square nails, part of a button and a piece of ceramic pottery,

That's what a lot of archaeology is about, Kelly said. Trying to discern how someone lived and what they were like based on their trash.

"If you think about your own bathroom trash or your kitchen trash, what could someone tell about you?" she said. "Could they tell what kind of diet you have? Could they tell if you have any medication problems based on the type of products you're using? So, you're just getting a glimpse into someone's life. It's really interesting as you go down and find more and more stuff. You don't know this person, but you're learning about them."

So far, most of what they've found is construction debris, such as broken glass and bricks. All of which tell them if they're on the right track, Kelly said. Finding things like wire nails helps them narrow down the dates because those were only used during a specific time.

In addition, they've found glass beads, part of a shell that was likely used for a button or broach and a dime from 1868. All the items, along with some of the soil, will go on to Van Buren's historical archaeology students in the fall to be washed, labeled and analyzed.

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Credit John Eisele
One of the CSU campus finds includes a dime from 1868, which was found during the excavation of a suspected privy.

Still, this wasn't exactly how CSU's field school students were supposed to be spending their summer.

With the uptick in COVID cases in the east, it was decided that the original trip to Tennessee would be too risky for students and staff, Henry said. Even getting the campus excavation project approved involved some hoops. The students were isolated for a week prior to the start of the class. They also have daily health and temperature checks, and are required to wear masks while working.

It's a lot of extra steps, but Kelly — whose grandfather was recently diagnosed with COVID-19 — said she appreciated the effort to keep the students both safe and working. Field school was the final box Kelly needed to check before graduating. And without this experience, she says she would have a much harder time finding work, especially in cultural resources management, where most archaeological jobs are.

"It was really worrying because unfortunately a lot of archaeologists this year aren't going to have that experience that you've been working years to get," Kelly said. "So we're just really lucky that, I think this is one of the only field schools — if not the only field school — happening in North America."

And while it's certainly not easy work, Kelly says that's kind of the point.

"It's really fun," she said. "It's a lot of manual labor, but you've got to enjoy it and you learn that in field school — if this is the right field for you."

CSU's archaeological field school will hold "public days" on July 24 and July 31 when visitors can tour the site by appointment. To schedule a visit, contact Josh Zaffos, communications specialist, Department of Anthropology and Geography at joshua.zaffos@colostate.edu.

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