John Hedden, an archaeologist with the University of Iowa, pulled up to a construction site at Davenport's 4th Street and Western Avenue on April 11, 2016, to scout what would be an emergency excavation.
A Minneapolis developer was building a five-story apartment complex on the site of the former Buesing Automotive company, across the street from the Scott County Administrative Center, and because federal money was involved in the financing, the developer had been required to conduct an archaeological survey.
The problem was, the survey had been rejected by state historic officials who wanted more research. This put the developer in a serious time crunch. He needed a satisfactory excavation report so he could get his money and to continue construction that already was underway.
He turned to the University of Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist for emergency help, and the office agreed. By the time Hedden arrived, all the previous buildings had been demolished and the site, from an archaeological dig point of view, was a "mess, was in turmoil," he said.
The developer built a fence around the 30-foot by 50-foot plot that the archaeologists were going to work on to protect them from construction workers, and excavations began on May 2.
The ground was muddy and conditions were less than ideal, but it didn't take long for the archaeologists to realize "we were into something good ... a very rare site," Hedden said.
Peeling the soil away to an undisturbed layer, they found an astonishing number of artifacts, including meat bones, pieces of broken china, buttons, shoe soles, smoking pipes, hand-blown medicine and liquor bottles and an intact ink well dating to the first days of Davenport settlement in the 1830s, continuing until about 1860.
Although the size of the dig was what Hedden describes as "postage stamp," when the crew of six to eight workers finished their work six weeks later, they had collected "one of the largest samples of historic archaeological materials from an early urban context within the state of Iowa," Hedden wrote in his formal report.
"This was early, early," Hedden said. "You never see this dense (amount of material in) an early deposit. We were just astounded as we dug into it.
"We found a complete chamber pot. It was a dense deposit of bones, ceramics, glass — you name it, it was there."
The work was kept under wraps at the developer's request, but now that it is finished and the report filed, Hedden and others are sharing their findings. Hedden gave a talk last week in Rock Island at a public meeting of the Quad-Cities Archaeological Society.
"It's not that it was a secret, they just didn't want anybody to know about it," Hedden jokingly told the group.
The developer did not return a call requesting comment.
Just what was this site?
Hedden and others think it was a place where early residents and businesses dumped their trash. They base this on documentation indicating that the area west of Western Avenue between 2nd and 4th streets was swampy with springs forming "soft, spongy ground," Hedden said.
Because that kind of land was unbuildable at the time, that likely made it a low-value place for trash in the years long before municipal garbage pickup.
"It was just a good place for residents and businesses along Western to dump things," he said. "It was kind of an open dump on the edge of a quagmire."
The archaeologists' report states that "early sanitary conditions (in Davenport) were so poor that in 1839, a ditch was constructed in the middle of Harrison Street for waste to flow into the river. The city eventually passed an ordinance that forbade throwing manure, spoiled meat, offal (entrails of a butchered animal), decayed vegetable substances and animals in any street, alley way or public spaces."
Why is this trash significant?
The things people leave behind helps explain how they lived, and urban finds of this quality from the early 1800s are extremely rare, Hedden said.
By the end of 2016, archaeologists hauled back to Iowa City some 31,256 individual pieces of recovered artifacts and are still studying them. The pieces also "will be used for years for research papers," Hedden said.
The presence of animal skulls that were spilt open, for example, indicates that the butchers used all parts of the animal with little to no waste. The presence of high-quality dishes in what was a low-status area suggests that they were easy to get, with boats bringing goods up the nearby river from St. Louis. The absence of any wild game bones shows that wild animals already were getting scarce.
Another reason the site is significant is that people living in working-class neighborhoods usually aren't documented like the wealthy class or businesses, so not as much is known about them, Hedden said.
One of the more revealing discoveries, encountered on the last day of the dig, was the grave of a small dog. By the placement of its bones and the collar next to its neck, archaeologists determined that the animal had been a beloved pet, lovingly buried.