U Destroys Civil War-Era Historical Artifacts in Building Repairs

The U unearthed, and then destroyed, many artifacts and building foundations dating back to the Civil War this summer at the Fort Douglas Museum — a mistake the school is working to correct.

The accidental destruction occurred when the school was upgrading the area’s electrical system, part of an ongoing campus-wide project to increase the reliability of service to the U. Shireen Ghorbani, spokesperson for Facilities Management, said the oversight occurred because of miscommunication between the school and the construction company on the project, and the U has taken steps to ensure this does not happen again in the future.

There used to be a position in campus planning which monitored the impacts of construction in the U’s historical districts. Ghorbani said this role is currently contracted out to Certus Environmental Solutions, a consulting company run by historian and archaeologist Sheri Ellis, who is now overseeing other building plans on campus.

“We are always looking for ways to preserve the history on campus,” Ghorbani said. “The fort is an unexplored treasure on campus by students.”

Beau Burgess, Fort Douglas Museum Curator, said the lack of monitoring damaged the history of the site.

“There were a lot of artifacts that were out there that were just scooped up and put in the back of a truck and hauled away,” Burgess said. “Civil War buttons, the bugles on the caps, the insignia, boots, bottles — you name it, it was in there. And it’s gone now, that part of the nation’s history is just wiped away.”

With the disposal of these items, the U broke the law by not surveying, documenting and trying to preserve them. Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act requires federal agencies to “take into account” the effect of construction projects and then allow a reasonable amount of time for the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation to respond.

In addition to this federal law, the U also has a memorandum of agreement to prevent the destruction of historic properties. Burgess said this policy may be revised to prevent future damage.

The Fort Douglas Museum sits on one of two national historic districts at the U where artifacts date back to the Civil War. For reparation, the U has to provide the museum with something of the same value as the destroyed items and building foundations, such as an educational tour or exhibit, Burgess said. This is in compliance with Section 106 stating agencies must “avoid, minimize or mitigate the adverse effects” of construction projects on historic properties. He said exact compensation is still being determined.

Burgess said these disposed items are some of the most useful items for archaeologists as they provide a context for the everyday lives of people in the past. While old items can have a monetary value, their real importance lies in the ability to tell the story of a place.

Ghorbani said the U has settled with the state on this mistake, but that there may be an additional archaeological survey next summer to help explore the area fully and avoid any future mishaps.

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