Archaeological Methods class uncovers original foundations of Carleton’s oldest building

Attend Community Archaeology Day on November 14 from 2–5 p.m. in Anderson Hall and on the Chapel lawn to learn more about how Carls uncovered the foundations of Seccombe House.

Erica Helgerud ’20 13 November 2023 Posted In:
Sepia photo of Seccombe House in its original location.
Seccombe HousePhoto:

What is the oldest building on Carleton’s campus?

Most Carls would say Willis Hall, built in 1873—which is still correct in a certain aspect, as Willis is indeed the oldest building on campus in continual college use. However, there is one campus building that was built seven years before Willis: Seccombe House. Originally located where the southwest lawn of Skinner Memorial Chapel currently is, Seccombe now sits a few blocks to the southeast at 111 Nevada Street. Its foundations remain underground near the Chapel, however, and that’s where Sarah Kennedy, assistant professor of archaeology and Latin American studies, comes in.

On a recommendation from Carleton archivist Tom Lamb, Kennedy led her Archaeological Methods & Lab students this term in an excavation of Seccombe’s original foundations along with a deep dive into the history of the building.

Seccombe House was first built in 1866 as a private residence for Reverend Charles Seccombe, who was the first person to raise money for Carleton in addition to being a professor at the College. He lived in the house with his wife, who taught music lessons, until 1870, when they sold it to Carleton and moved away. Between 1870 and 1875, President and Mrs. Strong lived in the home, and in 1875, Reverend D. L. Leondar—the author of The History of Carleton College—lived there while he taught classes in moral philosophy. In 1880, Seccombe officially became an academic building and was renamed Music Hall, where students took music theory classes, piano lessons, and more. This version of Music Hall existed until mid-1916, the summer after construction was completed on Skinner Memorial Chapel and two years after the establishment in 1914 of a new Music Hall (renovated in 2022 to become the home of political science and renamed Hasenstab Hall). The Seccombe building was moved off its foundations in the summer of 1916 to its current Nevada Street location, where it was used as faculty and student housing as well as rented housing for the general Northfield public. Seccombe House is exclusively Carleton faculty housing today.

Kennedy and her students couldn’t find clear information as to why Seccombe House was saved and not just demolished, like some of Carleton’s other nineteenth century buildings, but they wondered if it might be because it was originally built as a residence, not an academic building, and could therefore still be used as housing for students and faculty—with saving it carrying the additional benefit of preserving one of the oldest homes in Northfield. The class did conclude that the move itself was likely due to the desire to highlight the impressive new Chapel and to provide space in case the Chapel was ever expanded.

A group of people perform an Electrical Resistance Survey on the Chapel lawn.
Electrical Resistance Survey taken on the Chapel lawn

Prior to the start of their excavation, Kennedy and her students partnered with local archaeologist Geoff Jones from Archaeo-Physics, LLC to perform below ground surveys to identify and locate Seccombe’s foundations. Students got to use one of the methods—electrical resistance—in the lab to detect anomalies belowground, which they used to successfully find outlines of the Seccombe House building foundations. Some classic Minnesota weather delayed the class occasionally, but they started digging as soon as they could.

“The hardest part was actually breaking up the sod and removing the grass layer from the top of the soil,” Kennedy said. “That required shovels and a lot of muscles! After that, we started finding artifacts quite quickly, only about 10 centimeters below the surface. That was surprising, because we thought things would be buried a lot deeper than that.”

Kennedy and her students had to dig through rubble, trash, fill, and broken bricks before they uncovered the Seccombe foundation stones, which were about 30-40 centimeters below the surface. Other items they found included nails, wood, ceramic tiles, clay bricks, limestone bricks, window glass, bottle glass, slag, and “a bunch of coal.”

“We also accidentally uncovered an unmarked modern sprinkler line,” said Kennedy, “but we worked with facilities and campus safety to avoid it. Good thing we were digging with trowels and not shovels (or a backhoe)!”

Closeup on a person holding out a soil sample.
Soil sample from the Chapel lawn

Kennedy’s students loved the process, despite some small frustrations with the amount of paperwork that archaeology requires, and multiple students have informed Kennedy that they want to minor in archaeology after taking this class.

“They convinced me to go back out and excavate one day when it had just snowed and was about 25 degrees out, and I was debating staying inside,” Kennedy said. “They really wanted to go out and dig! They got excited over every type of artifact. I remember hearing them say, ‘Hey Sarah, come look, a nail!’ at least 30 to 40 times.”

The students were also interested in uncovering more of Seccombe’s history, especially since its status as Carleton’s oldest building is so often ignored or simply not known. Apparently, many people complained that the wood-framed Seccombe did not fit the college “aesthetic” of all the other brick and stone buildings on campus, and women’s dean Margaret Evans was even responsible for getting tall trees planted around Seccombe to block it from view.

There were also more practical reasons for moving out of Seccombe and into the 1914 Music Hall, as old Seccombe House was seen by that time to be too small, too cold, and “not fit for large musical performances or gatherings.” Kennedy was heartened by this particular bit of reasoning, as it shows just how important music was to early Carleton. Since the very beginning of the College, there has been a place to learn about and practice music—first in Seccombe, then in the 1914 Music Hall, and now in its very own wing of the Weitz Center for Creativity, which opened in fall 2017.

“Seccombe didn’t get used for music classes until 1880, the same time Williams Hall (science) and the old Observatory (astronomy) started holding classes,” Kennedy said. “This shows that very early on in Carleton’s history, you have a true dedication to an interdisciplinary, liberal arts education, with science and music as two early pillars. Interestingly, 143 years later, we still have an observatory (Goodsell), a brand new science building (Anderson), and a music and arts building (the Weitz). That is a strong, long-term, continuous commitment to the liberal arts!”

The Seccombe House excavation project itself has also been interdisciplinary, as it required multiple cross-campus partnerships to succeed.

“For historical background on Seccombe, archivists Tom Lamb and David Bliss have been extremely helpful,” Kennedy said. “Other professors, such as Austin Mason and Baird Jarman, have also shared information about Seccombe and early Carleton history with me—much of it uncovered by their students in history and art history classes over the last five to ten years. I’ve also been working closely with Jay Stadler in facilities, Blake Held in security, and Elizabeth Hasse and Joe Udelhofen in safety, as well as Eric Egge in the provost’s office.”

Kennedy’s Archaeological Methods class is also an applied Academic Civic Engagement (ACE) course, which focuses on teaching students through hands-on learning.

“We really emphasize community work and teamwork,” Kennedy said. “We discuss how many people and organizations are part of our research projects—it really is a team effort!—and how we should involve the community in our interpretations and dissemination of information.”

That goal is why Kennedy and her students are hosting a Community Archaeology Day this term, as well as sharing all their results online for anyone to access and learn from. Whether they are a first year student at Carleton or a well-established member of the Northfield community, everyone is invited to learn more about Seccombe and early campus life at Carleton.

Community Archaeology Day will be held on November 14 from 2–5 p.m. in Anderson Hall, in the atrium and in room 121/122. There will also be tours of the excavations in front of the Chapel.

Erica Helgerud ’20 is the news and social media manager for Carleton.