Iowa DOT’s latest presentation on Black Hawk Bridge includes information on archaeological findings, some discussion on possible bridge donation

Artifacts on display ... The general public browsed through artifacts on display at the Thursday, August 29 Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) presentation held at the Meehan Memorial Lansing Public Library. The artifacts were discovered during the archaeological digging that was part of the DOT’s planning process for the Black Hawk Bridge project proposed to get underway within the next five years. Photo by Susan Cantine-Maxson.

Among the artifacts ... Among the artifacts on display at the Thursday, August 29 Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) presentation held at the Meehan Memorial Lansing Public Library were these larger items that include some pottery pieces and a pitcher and other crystal pieces. Some of the artifacts discovered during the archaeological digging that was part of the DOT’s planning process for the Black Hawk Bridge project were believed to date back to prehistoric times. Photo by Susan Cantine-Maxson.

by Susan Cantine-Maxson

Brennan Dolan, Cultural Resources Manager and Archaeologist for the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT), has become a familiar face at the Meehan Memorial Public Library in Lansing. Thursday, August 29, the Iowa DOT, represented by Dolan, and several others, met with interested area residents about the findings of the archaeological studies recently conducted in conjunction with the Black Hawk Bridge project.

Dolan has presented at informational meetings several times over the past few months in regard to the bridge project, keeping the public informed and gathering comments and information to share with Iowa DOT officials. A special guest at this meeting was Leah Rogers, whose archaeological firm, Tallgrass Archeology (Iowa City), along with Two Rivers Archaeology (Anamosa), had completed the archaeological excavations at the newly recorded sites for the proposed bridge replacement.

In addition to the archaeological information, Dolan shared that a letter had been sent to Lansing Mayor Mike Brennan and the City of Lansing regarding the possibility of the donation of the bridge to a non-profit entity, such as the City. Such letters have also been sent to the Allamakee County Historical Preservation Committee and the Historic Bridge Foundation. Wisconsin officials are doing similar work on the east side of the river.

In accordance with The Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Assistance Act of 1987, the Iowa DOT and Wisconsin DOT make funding otherwise designated for demolition costs of historically significant bridges instead available for preservation and transportation expenses with the stipulation that the responsible entity will “maintain the bridge and the features that give it its historical significance and assume all future legal and financial responsibility of the bridge, which may include an agreement to hold the state highway agency harmless in any liability action.”

A total of $1.5 million in highway funds would be made available to an entity that wishes to preserve and maintain the bridge. In addition, the Iowa DOT and Wisconsin DOT would provide $600,000 to be used toward possible grant matches and maintenance. That $600,000 is the estimated cost for four years of maintenance of the bridge, with the $1.5 million being the estimated cost of demolition.

The significant issue is that the U.S. Coast Guard requires assurances that would allow the current bridge to stay in place, typically the preservation entity has to guarantee that the $1.5 million will be kept in trust to be used for demolition if any issues arise that would require the bridge’s demolition. Current law also stipulates that no more federal highway funds would be eligible for any maintenance to the bridge.

Another aspect of keeping the bridge as an historic structure is that the location and setting, as well as the structure, would need to be preserved to maintain its historic significance. The primary issue of acquiring the donation of the bridge is the substantial cost of maintenance. The letter concludes, “The Iowa DOT and the Wisconsin DOT are committed to finding a preservation solution for the Black Hawk Bridge if a responsible entity can be found.”

Dolan then moved on to the topic of the evening, which was the archaeological findings. Four of the newly recorded sites connected to the bridge project qualify for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. This means that each of these sites must meet at least one of the four National Register Criteria, which include: A) that a significant event took place there, B) a significant person was connected to the site, C) the structure displays unique architecture/engineering or represents the work of a master, or D) the site holds research potential, which is the case for most archaeology sites.

The Tallgrass Archaeology team began working on the project in 2018 and spent much of last November and December determining the significance of each site. The team concluded that the areas are rich in archaeological findings, which was to be expected along a major river corridor like the Mississippi at Lansing.

Most of the findings met expectations, which included pieces of everyday life along the river (fragmented tools, pottery, animal bone). River banks are always places of gathering for people who meet to travel, fish, hunt, to live and to have water access.

Their search began with a geo-physical survey which used ground penetrating radar to determine what lay beneath the soil surface; Luther College Professor Colin Betts assisted with this part of the research. The team also included Joe Artz, geomorphologist who analyzed the fine details of the layers of soil data.

Leah Rogers, the head of Tallgrass Archaeology, explained that a mixture of historic and prehistoric artifacts were found. Prehistoric would be classified as anything that predates European exploration and settlement of the area and would include several indigenous peoples. The areas close to the river yielded pottery sherds, arrowheads and various informal stone tools (some of which are pictured in the accompanying photos). Prehistoric artifacts were attributed to the Middle Archaic period (5,500-3,000 BCE), Early Woodland period (800 BCE-200 BCE), Late Woodland period (CE 300-1250), and Oneota period (CE 1250-1673) [BCE = before common era, CE = common era].

This information underscored the reality that people have been living in this area for thousands of years.  Rogers noted that the Oneota were ancestral to many area tribes. One key component of identifying Oneota pottery is that they used crushed mussel shells in their pottery.

Regarding the historic materials, Rogers explained that in archaeology one of the richest finds is a privy because many items were often discarded there; plus seeds and bacteria from the privy can indicate what people ate, the type of lifestyle they had, and help others understand their overall health. Urban privies are often less bountiful because people called “honeydippers” regularly cleaned out urban privies, whereas in the rural areas, a new privy was often dug rather than cleaned out. The group did find a number of features and artifacts including a shallow pit, but they did not feel it was a privy because it wasn’t deep enough.

Another helpful resource in identifying past structures is the Sanborn fire insurance maps which were comprehensive maps produced beginning in 1867. The maps, which detailed towns and cities from the mid-1800s and beyond, showed building footprints, building materials, building use, lot lines, roads and water sources. These maps help to define where certain structures stood even though the structure may no longer be there.

Digitized versions of these maps are available online from the Library of Congress and the State Library of Iowa. They are continually being added to. When the collection is complete, there should be more than 500,000 maps of U.S. towns and cities available for researchers.

Rogers emphasized that other clues to time period were smoking pipes, nails and ceramics, like stoneware. Molded stoneware is usually more modern than hand-thrown pots. Painted designs are also helpful in determining the time period of a piece.  Stoneware can give a sense of the economic status of the people that lived there.

When an area is sampled, such as the area along the riverbank, only a small area is actually excavated. The pieces in that sample area are considered indicative of the rest of the area. The artifacts are then washed, labeled, analyzed and curated. The items are listed as to where they were found; this helps current and future archaeologists completely reconstruct the excavation and know the context that artifacts came out of.

In the State of Iowa all artifacts are property of the landowner, these materials were offered back to the property owners. After they have selected what they want to keep, the rest of the artifacts are stored in a climate-controlled, secured facility run by the Office of the State Archaeologist in Iowa City. These items are often loaned out for displays. They have a significant research value for archaeologists, historians, anthropologists, as well as tribal and local community members.

At the conclusion of the August 29 presentation, Rogers mentioned that future researchers will definitely know what Lansing was famous for in its heyday,  noting “There are button blanks everywhere in Lansing.”

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