A worker digging a hole to place an interpretive sign 25 years ago inadvertently unearthed a trove of artifacts that provided archaeologists insight into life nearly 150 years before.

The worker at the First Capitol historic site near Belmont, Wis., had dug into the buried foundation of a home dating to the mid-19th century. Archaeologists soon began examining artifacts removed from the site to piece together information on the lives of the home’s inhabitants.

Here is how the Telegraph Herald reported on the discovery in its Sept. 20, 1996, edition.


BELMONT, Wis. — An ordinary hole in the ground became an archaeological dig this week when a worker’s shovel uncovered the remains of an old foundation.

The dig is just next door to the white frame Council House near Belmont which, with the Supreme Court, made up the territorial capital of Wisconsin for a brief time in 1836. It’s now the First Capitol State Historical Site. The worker was digging a hole in preparation for interpretive signs outside the two buildings.

Political wrangling and land speculation wrestled fame away from “Old Belmont” and gave it to Madison.

Old Belmont itself nearly disappeared when the railroad passed it by in the 1860s and present-day Belmont grew up to the east.

“We think this was a home,” John Broihahn, assistant state archaeologist, said of the limestone foundation. That assumption is based on items he and archaeologist Diane Holliday have sifted from the site.

While many people would be excited about the 1847 penny (as big as a quarter), the marble-sized lead musket ball or the piece of clay pipe, Broihahn said he was most impressed with the pieces of pottery.

“These are the most important,” he said, digging through a box of items in sealed plastic bags. “These tell us about the ordinary people who lived here.”

The shards are earthenware, which, unlike stoneware, is not impervious to water.

“It’s called redware and it probably came from Galena, Ill.,” he said. “It’s typical of what was made on the frontier. The colors of the glazes are so festive: deep blue, red, black, magenta.”

There isn’t much metal or bottle glass, although there is some thin, flat glass from window panes.

That probably came from Pennsylvania. The two First Capitol buildings were 19th-century pre-fabs. Sections of the buildings were shipped from Pittsburgh down the Ohio River, then up the Mississippi and the Fever rivers to Galena, where the rest of the trip was by wagon, according to a history of the Belmont capitol by Bert Bohlin.

Broihahn thinks the foundation they are analyzing was a frame building as well, as evidenced by all the nails unearthed.

“There’s handfuls of square-head nails,” he said, digging through paper sacks in a plastic bucket. The nails were made by a blacksmith, but not hand-wrought, he said.

Recommended for you