Iowa State University

News Service

News Service:

Annette Hacker, director,
(515) 294-3720

Office: (515) 294-4777



Matt Hill, Archaeology, (515) 294-7522

George Beran, Veterinary Medicine, (515) 294-7630

Warren Madden, Vice President for Business and Finance, (515) 294-1530

Dean McCormick, Facilities Planning and Management, (515) 294-0564

Annette Hacker, News Service, (515) 294-3720

Archaeology team will excavate, study animal bones found at ISU Memorial Union construction site

AMES, Iowa -- Sometimes education is all about digging deeper, looking beneath the surface to find answers. That's the conclusion Iowa State University faculty and administrators reached this week concerning animal bones found at a campus construction site.

The bones -- more than a century old -- were discovered March 23 by contractors who were excavating south of the Memorial Union for a planned addition to that building. A well-preserved horse jaw with teeth, crania, and numerous large animal bones are evident at the site.

Dean McCormick, assistant director for design and construction services for ISU's Facilities Planning and Management, says his team didn't expect to find the bones during this project, but considering the history of the site, it's not a complete surprise.

Iowa State's College of Veterinary Medicine was located there from 1885 to 1891. Old photographs indicate a ravine was located in the area at that time, and back then, it was common practice to bury the animal remains there.

A day after discovering the bones, administrators weren't convinced the find -- while fascinating -- was significant. But a week later, after consulting with the State Historic Preservation Office and ISU archaeology faculty, they've decided they want to learn what scientific and historical data the site may hold.

Matthew Hill, assistant professor of archaeology at Iowa State, will be the principal investigator on a nine-day dig at the site. He'll be joined by nine undergraduate and graduate students, as well as project archaeologist David Rapson, adjunct assistant professor (affiliate) of anthropology at Iowa State and adjunct faculty member at the University of Wyoming, Laramie.

"If we don't do this now, the opportunity will be lost forever," said Vice President for Business and Finance Warren Madden. "Iowa State is home to the first College of Veterinary Medicine at a land-grant university. And Matt Hill is one of the country's foremost experts in bone bed excavation. Given that all of this is on our campus, and there's an opportunity for students to be involved, it is worth making the investment to preserve this part of Iowa State history."

Madden expects the archaeology project to cost $30,000 to $35,000, which includes discovery and recovery, curation, analysis and technical reporting. The few days the dig will take won't impact the Memorial Union addition, he said, because work should be able to continue elsewhere at the site.

Because it is a working construction site, it will remain fenced and closed to the general public. No tours or public access will be provided at any time.

Hill said he and his fellow archaeologists are interested in the microenvironment at the site. Among his research questions: What is the age and sex of the animals? How did they get to the veterinary hospital? Were the remains buried incrementally, or all at once? And when? Are the bones only from the anatomy lab, or elsewhere? (In those days, before refrigeration and electricity, anatomy classes were conducted only in the winter).

Dr. George Beran, distinguished professor emeritus, veterinary microbiology and preventive medicine, is the caretaker of the College of Veterinary Medicine's history. He said veterinarians will be interested to learn, for example, the species of the animals buried there, whether any of them had been embalmed, and whether there are medicine bottles or period tools at the site.

Already, Beran said, the find is curious. The principal animal of veterinary anatomy at the turn of the century was the horse. But within minutes at the site, archaeologist Hill easily identified jaw material from a cow and a young pig. Beran, Hill and others wonder how those animals got there, considering the lack of transportation available at the time.

Once Hill and his team find the answers, they want to share that information with Iowans, veterinarians, and archaeologists across the country. They hope a display might be possible, perhaps in the veterinary college or in the Memorial Union.

Madden says the initiative also fits in with the sesquicentennial plans that are beginning all over campus, to celebrate Iowa State's 150th year in 2008.

"I'm enthused," he said. "People are excited about this. It's our history. And it's the right thing to do."


Quick look

Students involved in the project

  • Andrew Boehm, Wadena
  • Scott Sinnott, Albia
  • Jared Avelar, Northwood
  • Valerie Mayer, Ankeny
  • Matthew Wisniewski, Moville
  • Larry Van Gorden, Des Moines
  • Adam Holven, Waterloo
  • Erik Otarola-Castillo, Long Island, NY
  • Jeremy Hall, Ames