By David Malakoff

Archaeologist Krysta Ryzewski examines historic maps of the Old Hamtramck Center site in 2018. Her investigation targeted locations where the City Hall, police department, fire station, and other commercial and domestic buildings stood a century ago when Hamtramck was among the fastest growing cities in the United States. | Credit: Wayne State University

The beer stein had seen better days. The hefty glass mug was missing its top half and part of its sturdy curved handle. Still, it wasn’t hard to imagine the stein brimming with a frothy golden lager in the busy saloon that had once stood on the vacant lot where archaeologists dug up the artifact this past fall. “It’s an impressive chunk of glass… just what you’d expect to see in an early twentieth-century saloon,” said archaeologist Krysta Ryzewski of Wayne State University as she walked the weedy, rubble-strewn dig site on a blustery day. Behind her, a freight train rattled down the graffiti-covered railroad trestle that borders the site, which once sat in the vibrant historic center of Hamtramck, Michigan, a small city nestled within Detroit.

Early in the twentieth century Hamtramck and Detroit were among the nation’s fastest growing cities, and the empty lot had been prime real estate, located between a thriving business district and sprawling factories that churned out Dodge automobiles and other goods. Thousands of residents streamed by each day on their way to and from work.

Wayne State University students excavate the remains of a nineteenth-century working class neighborhood in Detroit in 2014. The neighborhood was demolished to make way for a park and a train station in 1917. | Credit: Wayne State University

“It’s hard to imagine now,” Ryzewski said, scanning the vacant land surrounding the site, “but this was once a great business location. There was a saloon on almost every corner.”

These bottles, electrical hardware, and architectural fragments were recovered from a nineteenth-century log cabin that was demolished by the City of Detroit in 2019. The artifacts are housed at the Hamtramck Historical Museum. | Credit: David Malakoff.

Reconstructing that lost world—and helping document other forgotten pieces of Detroit’s past—has become Ryzewski’s passion. Over the past decade, she has led Unearthing Detroit, a research initiative that launched more than a dozen digs and other efforts to explore the Motor City’s dizzying rise and sobering decline.


Archaeologist Dan Harrison shares the findings from the 2022 excavations at the Malcolm X House in Inkster, Michigan, with neighborhood residents. | Credit: Wayne State University
This is an article excerpt from the Winter 2022-23 edition of American Archaeology Magazine.  Become a member of The Archaeological Conservancy for your complimentary subscription!


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