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SLU students dig into local history ahead of construction

In a race against the bulldozers and cranes, a Saint Louis University history professor and a handful of students are conducting an archeological dig in the middle of campus.

It’s unlikely they will be able to excavate deep or wide enough to find evidence of an early Civil War encampment that once occupied the site, but Tom Finan, assistant professor of history and archeologist, doesn’t like to give up hope.  

“I can’t help but think with 800 men living here for a month and using the Mill Creek that ran through here, that something wouldn’t be left behind,” he said.

Back in 1861, this area was known as Camp Jackson. Today, new construction is claiming the spot near the southeast corner of Grand Avenue and Lindell Boulevard. A $50-million, 90,000-square foot science and engineering building will be located here on one of the last big green spaces on the Saint Louis University campus.

That’s prompted Finan and his students to dig through the soil in hopes of finding some signs of the area’s history.

SLU archeological dig in August 2018 before new construction of science and engineering building.
Credit Melody Walker | St. Louis Public Radio
Professor Tom Finan and students pose by one of their excavation sites on campus where construction begins this fall on a new three-story science and engineering building.

Camp Jackson was a pre-staging area for a Missouri militia of pro-slavery, Southern sympathizers. They planned to attack the federal arsenal near the Mississippi River and seize weapons. The attack was preempted when pro-union troops arrested the 800-strong militia and marched them down Lindell where a riot ensued, leaving more than 30 soldiers and civilians dead.

“We have found a few things,” Finan said. “Probably the most interesting piece we’ve found is a marble. At first, I thought it was a musket ball, but it’s not lead, so it’s not a musket ball.”

The small ceramic marble — a child’s toy — is something you would expect to find in the backyard of a house in the late 19th century according to Finan.

SLU archeological dig in August 2018 before new construction of science and engineering building.
Credit Melody Walker | St. Louis Public Radio
Tiny ceramic marbles found on the site of a late 19th century residence were probably used in children's games.

A densely populated residential district with narrow brick houses and limestone foundations was located on the site after the Civil War.

In the ‘60s, SLU paved the area and put up a parking lot.

Today, the field has four open excavation sites where Professor Finan and a small group of students have been digging through the layers of history for a couple of weeks.

Finan takes students each summer to a dig he oversees in Ireland on the site of medieval castle. On campus, he digs a hole or pokes around whenever a pipe is excavated or construction is pending.

“For a number of years, I’ve used this field as a test pit for archeological survey,” Finan explained. “Other professors on campus have used it for geophysical surveying and even testing UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, known as drones]. So, we know there is a lot of material under the surface here from when this was a thriving neighborhood, from about 1870 to 1950 or so.”

SLU archeological dig in August 2018 before new construction of science and engineering building.
Credit Melody Walker | St. Louis Public Radio
Professor Finan points to the different colored layers of earth exposed at the dig site that indicate different time periods.

Meg Smith is a doctoral candidate in history. She’s worked with Finan in Ireland and in St. Louis.

“When he digs a hole on campus, he’ll call me into help,” she said.

Smith said the campus digs are a great introduction to archeology.

“There is a lot of stuff we could find,” she said, “and so part of it is just the experience of getting in there. And of working with students and getting them into these holes and sort of doing the work of history and archeology.”

Matthew Blinkley knows he wants to be an archeologist. The sophomore is majoring in history and anthropology. This is his first dig.

“We haven’t found a ton of stuff, but the stuff we have found has been kinda cool,” he said.

A few chipped pieces of blue glass and china were found in what is believed to be a firepit where rubbish would have been burned in residential areas at the turn of the last century. The discovery and expectation of finding more clues to the past seemed enough to encourage the young archeologists.

“Even if we don’t find anything,” Smith said, “I think it’s been worthwhile and a really exciting project. And, hopefully, we do find some really cool stuff.”

The dig will continue until mid-September. That’s when the archeologists will have to make way for the construction crews who will prepare to add another layer of history to the site. The new science and engineering center is expected to be complete by 2020.

Follow Melody on Twitter @melodybird

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