Anthropology students search for Haymarket history


A group of UNL students have started a multi-year dig into the history of Lincoln's historic train depot district.

Participating in the 2010 summer field school in archaeology, the students are searching for artifacts and buildings that date back to the 1870s. The dig is led by Peter Bleed, professor of archaeology, and planned in coordination with the city of Lincoln before construction of the Haymarket Arena begins.

"We are here beginning an assessment of the cultural resources of the west Haymarket arena area," said Bleed. "The major things we are looking for are the Immigrant and Burlington houses. The exact location of these historic buildings is uncertain."

As the name implies, the Immigrant House was a hotel used by immigrants stopping in Lincoln before venturing to new farmsteads. The Burlington House, which Bleed believes is unrelated to the railroad, provided living space for Lincoln-area laborers. Bleed said records show 37 people lived in the Burlington House in 1880 when Thomas Helan served as the building manager.

Bleed said the Burlington House was razed sometime between 1880 and 1895. The Immigrant House was abandoned by the mid 1880s and was a ruin in the 1890s.

See photos from the dig site at

The archaeology team worked with the Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Department officials to identify potential locations of the buildings. Bleed said historical maps, city records and period photographs - including one by Erwin Barbour, director of the University of Nebraska State Museum from 1891 to 1941 - were also utilized.

Since this is the first summer in a projected three-year search, Bleed said the students have been tasked with digging in a variety of spots with the goal of identifying the kinds of materials and deposits in the Haymarket area, and cataloging artifacts.

Digging has been limited because the majority of the potential building locations are in areas actively used by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad and other businesses. However, the Watson-Brickson Lumber Company, 660 N St., has granted access - including a dig in a storage area, between stacks of boards.

"We've found some interesting artifacts so far," said Jeff Wagner, a junior anthropology major from Grand Island. "We've identified what looks to be a foundation or a walkway to one structure. And, we've also found several different pieces of 1900s or earlier glassware, ceramics, bricks and nails."

One of the more interesting items found is a glass button recovered in the fill area between the modern grade and the 1880s prairie soil. The button is a Japanese design featuring a samurai. Bleed said research on the button identified it as being identical to one in the catalogs of the Metropolitan Museum in New York City.

Students record the exact location of every item found through Global Positioning Satellite data and drawings. Each test hole is also drawn out by hand to show the different layers of sediment encountered. The test sites will be used to direct future summer field school digs in the Haymarket area.

Bleed believes the Burlington House was located on or very near the Watson-Brickson site. The best guess on the Immigrant House location is near a white Quonset building and rails northwest of Watson-Brickson. That site is currently being used by BNSF and Bleed hopes to address the area in the next two summers.

The field school in archaeology is a summer offering for students studying in UNL's Department of Anthropology. Participants experience a range of field experience that prepares them for future career paths. The work includes using cutting-edge concepts and modern technologies to time honored shovels and screens.

"The really big thing we want students in this class to decide if this sort of work is for them, if they like digging in holes under the hot summer sun and if they like finding stuff under dirt," said Courtney Cope, the teaching assistant for the summer field school. "We also want them to learn the basics so that when they do go out and get a real job, they know how to do a test unit, how to identify artifacts and how to formulate for themselves what a site is all about."

Cope is a first-year graduate student pursing a master's degree in professional archaeology. She also works for the Midwest Archaeology Center, run by the National Park Service office in Lincoln.

"For me, summer field school was extremely useful," said Cope. "This class helped me decide for sure that I wanted to do archaeology."

Bleed said the summer field school project won't delay the construction of Lincoln's $344 million Haymarket Arena project. The arena project is scheduled for completion by fall 2013.

"We're only here to see what we can find before this area is covered by a parking lot," Bleed said. "The goal is to find these two buildings and answer questions about what life was like for the people who were here. And, in working toward that goal, we are providing these students with some really good archaeological experience."

- By Troy Fedderson, University Communications

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