PROVO — As the LDS Church finalizes plans to build a temple within the walls of the fire-ravaged Provo Tabernacle, history from an even earlier building at the site is being studied.
Little by little, archaeologists and students from BYU are working in cooperation with the Church History and Temple departments of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to unearth Provo's first tabernacle, a building known as the "old meetinghouse."
It stood just north of the existing Provo Tabernacle, which was gutted by a fire more than a year ago.
They are digging, sifting and discovering some of Provo's early history, and finding some surprises.
“(There's) some of the best-cut stone you will see, put together in a solid foundation that held up this building,” said Richard Talbot, director of the Office of Public Archaeology at BYU.
Not only are they learning about the old meetinghouse, which was torn down in 1919, they are finding artifacts from life in Provo during the late 1800s.
“We're finding little trinkets, beads and buttons and straight pins, a little doll. We found a little piece of a brooch pin off of a woman's dress,” Talbot said.
The building was torn down in 1919 after it fell into disrepair. Talbot says some of it was salvaged, but most of it was pushed into the basement and buried.
Another interesting architectural find has been an original stone window frame, believed to have held stained glass, which was above the front door of the old tabernacle.
As BYU students were digging on Thursday afternoon, graduate student Scott Ure uncovered the last missing piece of the frame.
"I enjoy finding these pieces and putting the puzzles together. It's just an exciting thing. I love it," Ure said.
The excavation is also allowing the archaeologists to learn more about the city's first tabernacle. For example, ash residue on the foundation wall reflects where the wood burning stove was located that provided heat to the building
“The things aren't that extraordinary to a lot of people, but finding something that is over 100 years old is pretty amazing," said graduate student Katie Richards.
The project is possible because the burned historic Provo Tabernacle will soon undergo a major renovation to become an LDS temple, providing a very unique and valuable teaching tool for more than 50 BYU archaeology students.
It’s an opportunity Talbot is thrilled about.
“To have it in your backyard is unique, where students can actually come down between classes," he said. "They can sit in the classes and learn about it and then come down here and experience it.”
The meticulous work of shoveling by hand and sifting through the dirt will continue for another month. Talbot said the work will ultimately benefit not only the students, but future generations as they learn and remember the efforts and skills of Provo’s early residents.
“We can learn to appreciate our pioneer ancestry, the skill that they had in building this. All of the descriptions you read in their journals say it was built with love, that they were also excited about building this, about having a meeting place where they could all come.”