Hamline News

Students Excavate History from the Aleutian Islands to Hamline


A Cheetos bag can give clues about the demolition of a building and paint chips in the dirt can speak volumes about an era. These are a few things you learn in the Hamline Anthropology Department if you come with an experimental mindset, a creative use of science, and enthusiasm to learn about cultures. Megan Harding, a graduating senior majoring in anthropology, has applied this perspective to artifacts buried at Hamline, and by graduation, she’ll be on a boat to Alaska to research secrets hidden in the Aleutian Islands. She’ll be joined on the Alaska trip by Professor Brian Hoffman, chair of the Anthropology Department, and Steve Goranson, a Hamline junior majoring in anthropology.

“A lot of my work is intentionally designed to introduce my students to other people so that they can start building their network, start seeing other ideas, and start seeing other ways of doing work. Related to that, this research gives them the chance to work in the field with biologists, geologists, and with people with other specialties,” Hoffman said. “I think one of the most important things that we teach undergraduates is the importance of developing skills as collaborators.”

Hoffman, alongside a multidisciplinary team of researchers from across the nation, received a grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct research on Kiska Island, one of the western Aleutian Islands. Not only will the research provide answers about the cultural history of the Aleuts and their relationship to the environment, but it will also create a better understanding of the relationship between humans and changing ecological environments over the last several thousand years. The research team will spend part of their time at village excavation sites on Kiska Island to determine what time periods they may date to.

“It’s an amazing opportunity, one that can really kick start a career,” Harding said. “I’m hoping to do something in cultural resource management and this is an ideal experience to get into that field.”

In addition to preparing for research in Alaska, Harding has been hard at work on her senior capstone inspired by Hoffman’s unique class called Excavating Hamline’s History (you can watch a video about this class below). The class allows for excavations on parts of Hamline’s campus in order to unearth evidence of the university’s rich past. In her research, Harding specifically explores Hamline’s long relationship with the community through archeological evidence. Through their excavations, Hoffman, Harding, and the class found a Cheetos wrapper from the 1971 demolition of a Hamline science hall, a road paver from Simpson Avenue, a toy horseshoe, beakers from the science rooms, and a little blue train set.

“I’m tying it back to Hamline’s history with the community, making it about public archeology and landscape archeology, getting the community involved, and remembering that Hamline is part of a larger history,” Harding said. “The science hall once had a natural history museum that had a gorilla display that brought people from hundreds of miles away to see it because people had never seen gorillas. We’ve got some stories from neighbors about how men would dare each other to climb around the ledge of the building and try to make it all the way around before the librarian caught him and chased him off. It was a bunker during the war and it was a theater also. Kids in the community would help with plays. It was a very key building in the community,”

Hoffman, Harding, and Goranson will leave Saint Paul for five three weeks of research on May 13. Even though this research opportunity cuts spring semester short and means Harding will be on a boat to the Aleutian Islands during the commencement ceremony, she plans to bring her cap and gown to celebrate her achievements with her fellow Pipers in spirit.