Beads of sweat formed on Richard Lauhead’s forehead as he dug into the ground with a narrow spade at South Valley Park in Inver Grove Heights. His metal detector told him something was buried in this spot and he was determined to unearth it.
“I should have brought a real shovel,” he said after a few minutes, but kept digging.
Eventually, he pulled his treasure out: a rusted shovel, missing its handle.
Lauhead was one of four volunteers and a hired contractor who helped with a two-day archaeological survey in the park, documenting and mapping the remains of an old homestead, originally built in 1868.
“We’re coming out and we’re actually doing something from an archaeological perspective that has need or value,” said Jeremy Nienow, the archaeologist leading the land survey. “But really, the larger value that we’re getting is the public coming in, understanding what archaeology is, getting a chance to do it.”
The survey was one part of a yearlong program, called the Archaeology Outreach Pilot Program, overseen by the historical societies in Scott, Dakota, Ramsey and Anoka counties.
The four organizations are sharing Nienow’s services throughout the year to take on a variety of projects, including land surveys, documenting and reviewing existing archaeological collections, running educational workshops and giving presentations around the metro. Nienow started his work for the historical societies in March.
“We all have a better sense of what it is we have that is archaeological in nature and then also things we can do with that,” said Chad Roberts, executive director at Ramsey County Historical Society.
The outreach program is possible thanks to a $74,259 grant from the state Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, which is managed by the Minnesota Historical Society.
Roberts, who led the effort in applying for the money, said the grant is unique because it provides flexibility for the four groups to identify their own needs and build programming both individually and as a group.
“We realized we all had different collections with different needs and we all had different kinds of projects,” Roberts said. “[W]e’re all small, so capacity to [individually] rank grant proposals for small projects, scope them appropriately, identify qualified people to then do the work … would really be a challenge.”
Nienow, who has more than 20 years of archaeology experience, said he hasn’t seen a program model like this before.
“To my knowledge, something like this hasn’t really been done,” he said. “The Metro Area Historical Society Collaborative is a group of historical societies who really are independent entities. … But this is an opportunity for them actually to work with a trained archaeologist and pool their resources together.”
One of the most important parts of the pilot program is the community engagement portion, Roberts said. He wants the community to get involved and attend the events the various historical societies have planned.
Each historical society has a list of the events coming up in its area, which can be found by calling or looking on the four websites.
Six months into the program, getting the community engaged hasn’t been a problem, Nienow said.
“I’ve had volunteers in 90-degree weather, digging holes and meticulously looking through screens to find objects. I had to force them to take breaks and eat lunch,” he said. “A lot of them live right in the local neighborhood and they are really curious about the local past.”
Lora Bloom, a librarian at the St. Paul Public Libraries, is one of those people. She was participating in her third archaeology outreach event Aug. 8. She plans to attend as many as she can.
“I’ve worked with the paper documents that tell a story, but never with artifacts and never in the way that archaeologists do,” Bloom said. “It’s always been an interest of mine, and I thought, ‘By god, this is it. I’m going to pursue this.’ ”
In addition to documenting and researching current projects and artifacts, Roberts said the historical societies are using the program as an opportunity to learn to spot future projects around the counties. He hopes other organizations will use this pilot program as an example for new programs around the state.
“It’s been a wonderful educational experience for us,” he said. “We’re going to make that information available to every organization in the state of Minnesota. We think the project can be repeated by other collections of organizations around the state, and I think that probably should happen in quite a few cases.”
Janice Bitters is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.