Backyard Archaeology

Every now and then I get such a brilliant idea that I have to patiently wear down my wife’s skepticism. For the last year, I’ve been suggesting (as well as hinting, imploring, and begging) that I be allowed to conduct a proper excavation in part of our backyard. She has finally agreed.

When we bought our house 2 years ago there was a swing-set in the backyard. The base of the swing-set was a sandbox. It appears that the sandbox was cut into the ground by maybe 10 cm. When the swing-set was removed, the sand from the sandbox stayed and as a result nothing can grow in a 3 m x 1.5 m splotch in our back yard. Some way or another, the sand must be removed if we want to have a lush and appropriate backyard lawn. 


The need to remove sand, however, is probably not a sufficiently robust scientific reason to conduct a proper excavation. Archaeology is, after all, destructive and archaeological contexts are a limited resource. There is an archaeological justification for excavating the backyard, however. Our house probably dates to 19th century and is probably the oldest house on our block and in our section of town. We know that the house has seen only limited modification. A back room – maybe designed to be an expanded kitchen – and sleeping porch were added at some point probably in the earliest 20th century. The sleeping porch was built in by the mid-20th century to serve as an additional bedroom. The front porch as it now exists dates from the last decade of the 20th century, but it likely replaced an earlier porch. There has been extensive landscaping and there are two out buildings: a one car garage that is earlier than a two car garage. The former is probably mid-20th century – judging by the massive elm tree that today pushes into the side of the structure – and the latter is probably from the 1970s. This short architectural history of the house demonstrates that there is little chance that we’ll uncover fragile architectural remains associated with an earlier phase of our house or an earlier structure on the site. This makes our excavation relatively low risk in terms of possibly damaging otherwise protected earlier structures.


More importantly, from what I can gather there has never been a fully published archaeological excavation within the urban core of Grand Forks. Despite the almost constant excavating of foundations for new buildings, there is no effort to document the remains of earlier structures on these sites. What does happen, however, is neighbors discover buried middens in their backyards while preparing gardens and the like. At a recent block party several folks reported finding old bottles and other archaeological material between the back of their houses and the alley way. I suspect that an excavation in my backyard will reveal trash pit from the turn of the 20th century as well as construction debris associated with the house. Carefully documenting these finds will not only reveal the rich material culture associated with small town habitation, but also serve as a study collection for finds discovered in other, more neighborly (and unscientific) gardening digs.


With very recently granted approval, I need to start to assemble a team to excavate my backyard and to determine what approvals will be necessary (including local utilities!). I am clearly not qualified to document the material culture from a turn of the century excavation and have no experience digging in the Red River Valley or the Northern Plains, but fortunately, I know some people who do have experience. We plan to backfill the trench and replace the barren ground with sod when we’re done and it won’t be any larger than 3 x 3 m. When we excavate, it will be important to publish the results promptly both on the web and in a more traditional form. My thought is that our Grand Forks Community History Series might provide a useful venus. Hopefully the finds can find a home at a local museum and the digital or paper documentation of our work can live in Special Collections at the University of North Dakota.

My hope is to start our work mid-summer 2014 provided we can jump through any hoops. I’ll certainly keep you posted.


  1. That sounds so cool!


  2. Kostis Kourelis August 14, 2013 at 9:06 am

    I have been laying the ground-work for a public archaeology back-yard excavation in Lancaster. I obviously need more New World experiences, so I must come and help you.


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