Historical Archaeology at Solon
Michael J. Perry, Project Archaeologist
Many people noticed the archaeological work conducted in late September
just north of Solon, Iowa. Test excavations were conducted at site 13JH971,
a mid- to late-nineteenth century house or farmstead. The site was discovered
in 1999 on land that is now partly pasture and partly cultivated. In the
pasture, a few rocks surrounding a large depression filled with refuse
suggested the presence of a foundation for a house or other building.
A smaller depression in the pasture was also observed near the old foundation,
possibly marking a well. More rocks were noticed in the cultivated area
near the old foundation, which may be all that remains of a barn or stable.
An 1871 map of Johnson County's Big Grove Township showed a house at the
approximate location of the site, supporting the interpretation of the
features in the pasture. The excavations were intended to document the
age and types of artifacts and features at the site. Combining the field
data with historical records and comparing the results with investigations
at sites of similar age may lead to important inferences about the early
settlement of Johnson County and eastern Iowa.
Work at the site began by exposing the limestone
foundation course, which supported the structure's west wall. The
excavations also exposed rock
pilings that supported the north, east, and south walls. The foundation
remnants outlined an area measuring about 16 x 30 feet (5 x 10 meters).
The foundation remnants surround a depression that represents a partially
filled cellar. Bundles of old fence wire and other refuse was placed in
the depression to deter cattle once the area was converted to pasture.
Nails, glass, bricks, and a variety of metal artifacts were recovered
during the foundation exposure work. These materials are undergoing analysis
Although no rocks were exposed within the small depression near the foundation,
probing with a steel rod indicated that a roughly circular area of rock
about 3 or 4 feet in diameter lay about one foot below the surface. A
excavated across the area exposed the rocks and encountered numerous nails
and few other artifacts. Occasional bits of charred wood and charcoal
also were found in the trench. The limestone rocks formed a single,
dish-shaped layer. Beneath the rocks lay a zone of dark clayey soil
about 3 feet thick, followed by a layer of sand about 1 foot thick. More
rocks underlay the sand at a depth of about 5 feet below the modern surface.
These rocks prevented further excavation. The arrangement of rocks and
soil materials suggested an old well that was filled with rock, sand,
and soil, and capped with more rock. When the house that stood on the
limestone foundation near the well was demolished, much of the lumber
was apparently piled on the rock-capped well and burned, leaving only
the nails. Other artifacts in the overburden covering the rock cap included
stoneware and whiteware ceramics, window and bottle glass fragments, and
metal pieces. These materials did not appear to be burned. The glass and
ceramic artifacts probably were inadvertently included in a final layer
of earth used to cover the burned refuse and allow pasture grass to grow.
As the well fill settled, the rock cap became dish-shaped.
Visitors to the excavations were surprised to learn there once had been
a house standing at the site location. One life-long Solon area resident
stated there had not been a house at the site in his seventy years. The
earliest map of the Big Grove Township is the government's original land
survey plat, made in 1841, but shows no house at the site location. Artifacts
recovered during the 1999 survey of the site included ceramic and metal
artifacts typical of the mid-nineteenth century. The house may therefore
have been built in the late 1840s and stood until early in the twentieth
13JH971 | 13JH981
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