Dig, scoop, dump, remove: All over town the construction teams are opening up the ground for new projects. What happens when they find buried treasure?

Note: They never do.

There's no pirate booty hidden below the parking lots of Minneapolis and St. Paul. But for urban archaeologists, the people who sift through history's flotsam for clues to our past, there's treasure just the same.

Start with the river, where the city began. Surely that's a trove of buried stuff?

"We want castles and temples, but we don't have them," said former State Archaeologist Scott Anfinson. "We have flour mills, but it's pretty unsatisfying. You know what it is and you don't learn much about the workers. They don't leave much behind from their lunchboxes."

Surprisingly, it's the old neighborhoods that offer more clues to the past. Especially neighborhoods that became industrial areas or commercial districts that were abandoned and eventually turned into parking lots.

Take the old Berman Buckskin warehouse at Hennepin and Washington avenues. It was the heart of a young downtown in the latter 19th century, with a city market and a train station. When the area was excavated for the Federal Reserve building in 1994, they uncovered an urban archaeologist's dream:

Toilets. Old places of low repute are often rich with objects, because people threw things — lots of things, like entire coffee service sets, keys, toothache medicine flasks — down the privy hole.

"The site told us about the dark side of Minneapolis," says Anfinson.

St. Paul had its own bawdy buried past, as well. The 1997 excavation of Nina Clifford's businesses (OK, bordellos) to build the Science Museum turned up a rich record of the saintly city's naughty years — whorehouses grand and low, and a saloon called the Bucket of Blood.

The archaeologists found lots of ink bottles. Why? Illiterate locals came to dictate letters to distant relations. They found patent medicine bottles, because the prostitutes suffered from all manner of ailments, and relied on opiated nostrums. Chicken bones and oyster shells might suggest that finger-food was provided for the customers. Good china was found in the area where the front rooms of the brothels were located; in the back where the women lived, cheap plates.

Toys in the backyard of the rooming houses, because that's where the children of the prostitutes played.

We could have guessed all of that, but you have to open up the earth to prove it.

Everyday artifacts

These days, we sift and peer and judge the things that the shovels reveal. But when a worker dug up a broken dish on a building site in 1904, he threw it away and kept digging. If the shovel hit a busted arrowhead (projectile point is now the preferred term), chances are the worker didn't recognize it as an artifact. Now it's different.

"There's a series of laws in place that are the main impetus for what we do," said Adam Kaeding, archaeology manager at the 106 Group, a St. Paul company that performs urban archaeological services.

The laws are designed to preserve heritage, he explained.

"But, fortunately, there is a rise in a historic preservation among cities and communities who want to preserve it because it's important to them," Kaeding added.

That's where the pros are necessary. Anyone can identify a busted plate as a busted plate, but it takes a particular eye to see some stones and say actually, that's a fire pit. That tiny shard? Part of a pot.

You might nod, and say great: a pot piece. Interesting if you're into pieces of pots, but what's the big deal, really?

It's a small deal that helps add details to our understanding of the past. Candy wrappers, collar stays, ticket stubs and trolley tokens — they're the inanimate cast of characters that populated the world of our predecessors, objects as familiar to them as charger cords and flash drives are to us.

They're almost entirely lost. But sometimes the homeliest things reappear, and connect us with the past. Sometimes all it takes is plain, ordinary old wood.

"I remember we were working on the Hennepin Avenue bridge project on the Nicollet side," Anfinson said. "We uncovered some cedar planks. What we found was the first sidewalk approach to the first Hennepin Avenue Bridge.

"There were these guys with hard hats and T-shirts watching, and I said, 'You know, this was a sidewalk to an 1854 bridge, the first across the Mississippi.' I can see I've piqued their interest. Then I said, 'You know who walked on these boards? The founders of General Mills, the founders of Pillsbury. They would have walked on these planks to go see their mills. It was the only way across. Everyone who lived in this city walked on those planks,' I said. 'You can't see their footprints, but there's a ghost of them there.'

"One of the workers got a big smile and stepped his foot on that plank. All of a sudden they realized this was something important they could relate to. It was a piece of their past, too."

In a sense, all of the streets are like those planks. We walk on top of the greatest museum the world will never see.

Anfinson hopes we'll uncover more everyday artifacts that give us a clearer picture of the diversity of the city.

Kaeding, of 106 Group, agrees: "There's the democratizing effect of archaeology," he said. "Certain narratives and groups and perspectives are represented in the official histories, but what's coming out of the ground? Everyone is represented."

James Lileks • 612-673-7858 • @Lileks