It is not too often you find such an actual, real-life adventure to experience, but on Saturday morning I went over to St. Paul to participate in an actual, working archaeological excavation in Swede Hollow Park! When else could you have such a chance?
After hearing of the dig on MPR, I knew I would have to check it out, and it was really cool! I almost majored in archaeology in college, though I ended up pretty close in history, so I of course have always been fascinated by the archaeological process. This was the first time I witnessed an excavation first hand, let alone participated, so it was a great learning experience. I cannot think of a better way to learn more about the history, both uplifting and tragic, of immigration in the Twin Cities.
Chatting with the University of Minnesota graduate students in charge of the dig, we were given a short history of Swede Hollow, a wooded area tucked away just outside of downtown St. Paul, nestled into a ravine. The hollow had a long history in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as being the first home to many immigrant groups, who started as squatters on the unused land. Originally a home to Swedish immigrants, later Italian immigrants replaced them and then Mexican immigrants by the 1940s. Throughout all this time, the unofficial neighborhood lacked all infrastructure, whether plumbing, transportation, or electricity. In fact, conditions in the hollow remained a century behind well into the 20th century, its population neglected by the city and left to their own devices. In 1956, though, the neighborhood was condemned by the city of St. Paul and declared a public health hazard. The remaining families living in the hollow were forced out and the homes burned by the Fire Department.
It is these marginalized populations that the archaeological explorations of Swede Hollow hope to shine light upon. We helped to dig exploratory surveys, probing what artifacts could be found in certain areas after GPR scanning indicated objects buried in the ground of the park, or old surveys revealed where buildings once stood. Signs of the burn line had yet to be breached, but much evidence of Swede Hollow’s history as a dumping ground for the rest of the city’s waste, public and private, were discovered. It was such a great experience to help turn up so much information about the neglected groups who lived in the past, without much documentation or attention.
Filling buckets of soil from the excavations, we helped to pick out artifacts from the rest of the fill; tiny pieces of glass, marble, clinkers from old coal fuel, pieces of pre-1940 brick, ceramic, and much more. It was fascinating to see so many relics of the past century turn up, after which they were packed away in numbered baggies for laboratory analysis. Kneeling on the ground of the park, digging at the soil with a trowel, enjoying the nice weather, this was one of the most unique things I’ve done this summer.
They are still inviting the public to participate this weekend as well, and I’d really recommend checking it out if you can; here is their list of things you need. It can be a bit difficult to find your way to Swede Hollow Park, but there is parking in the neighborhoods around it, so just head down the stairs and follow the chalk outlines leading to the excavations!