Digging in the dirt and uncovering Civil War era items at Salt Lake City’s Fort Douglas

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Archaeologist Jamie Burnett uncovers a bottle discovered Saturday during a public archaeological event at Fort Douglas Military Museum on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018. Utility trenching exposed historically significant sites along Potter Street, once a busy thoroughfare through Fort Douglas, established by the U.S. Army in 1862 above the nascent Salt Lake City and what is now the University of Utah.

One Sunday in October four years ago, Beau Burgess came to work at the Fort Douglas Military Museum and peered into a utility trench cut the day before at the historic U.S. Army outpost established in 1862 just outside the nascent Salt Lake City.

The museum’s curator, Burgess has an eye for historically significant objects.

“You could see the bottles in the side of the trench,” said Burgess, now the museum’s director. He contacted the Utah Division of State History for guidance and thus began an archaeological project that continues to disgorge bits and pieces of everyday life from a 19th-century military base that is now part of the University of Utah.

State historic preservation officials on Saturday invited the public to check out new excavations along Potter Street, Fort Douglas’ once-busy thoroughfare fronting the museum, housed in an 1875 stone structure next to parade grounds known as Stillwell Field.

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Elizabeth Hora, left, and Skylar Schulzke examine the material left in a screen during a public archaeological event Saturday at Fort Douglas Military Museum in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018.

“Fort Douglas is Utah’s Civil War history,” said Kelly Beck, the project’s principal investigator with SWCA Environmental Consultants. “If anyone would have told me while I was in school that I would be doing Civil War-era archaeology near downtown Salt Lake City, I would have laughed at them, and here we are.”

Immediately in front of the museum, the pavement has been opened up, exposing stone foundations of structures that no one knew had existed before the utility work. Plenty of historic photographs and maps of the fort survive, but none show what stood where these foundations were discovered, according to SWCA’s Sheri Ellis.

“This was a wakeup call,” she said. "This road has been here forever and everyone assumed there was nothing there. They open it up and surprise.”

The excavation Ellis directed turned up nails and glass, but nothing that would indicate what the building was used for.

“There areas are sterile in terms of artifacts,” she said.

Hardly 100 meters to the east on Potter Street, however, another excavation site has yielded plenty of items used and discarded by the soldiers who lived and trained on the fort, according to Charles Shepherd, a historical architect and U. campus planner.

“These were the enlisted men who may not have written journals and left a written record,” Shepherd said. “These leftover bits from their lives start explaining, in some narrow way, what life was like on the fort, what kind of beverages they drank, what kind of artifacts were on their uniforms, what they felt and used each day.”

At yet another site, the Utah Division of State History has stockpiled dirt from an excavation pit dug for a power substation nearby at Red Butte Creek. Instead of trucking the dirt away, it was hauled to a parking area next to the museum where volunteers have been gradually sifting the dirt.

“We have a great opportunity with the Potter Street excavation to have so many people come and help us,” said Elizabeth Hora, a compliance official with the history division. “This is where you can do hands-on archaeology.”

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Teagan Miller, right, and sister Nina examine an intact ink bottle discovered Saturday during a public archaeological event at Fort Douglas Military Museum in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018.

Nina and Teagan, the young daughters of division staffer Deb Miller, were getting themselves dirty Saturday plying through materials left in the screens which yield numerous objects of interest that included: broken pieces of bottles and ceramics, a bullet casing, cut bones from butchered animals, buttons and copper beads and other uniform adornments, and kitchenware.

Shawn Lambert, the history division’s public archaeologist held up his favorite to show the Miller girls and other kids. It was the base of a ceramic egg cup.

Eying the pile of dirt Saturday, Christopher Merritt, the division’s antiquities section coordinator, spotted a glass object, reached in and pulled out an intact ink bottle, commonly used for writing before the advent of ballpoint pens. Dirt was packed into it, which likely prevented it from getting broken.

The objects recovered are to be housed in the military museum’s collection and some, such as the ink well and egg cup, will some day be put on display.