PROVO -- Church historians are calling the unearthing of the 1875 baptistry at the Provo City Center Temple site a "significant discovery."
The baptistry, with its 5-by-9-foot font, was built around 1875 and is a significant discovery, Benjamin Pykles, an LDS Church history department curator, said in a press release. "This one city block spans nearly the entire history of the church in Utah with the construction of the original meetinghouse in the 1850s and '60s, the baptistry in the 1870s, the tabernacle in the 1890s, and now the temple under construction."
It is the earliest known baptistry of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Utah County. The church history department invited the Office of Public Archeology at Brigham Young University to help in the excavation of the font.
The excavation of the baptistry started in late October and was recently completed. Construction workers didn't just stumble on the site, this was a concerted archeological investigation, Pykles added.
According to Pykles, the next project is a well on the site. An underwater stream or aquifer is known to run under the property and water tables are high in other areas of the downtown.
"A well on the property was uncovered and will be excavated in the next few weeks. It is connected to the aquifer," Pykles said. "The church is giving its due diligence to the site. Construction is still on schedule."
Pykles said the standards for care, recording and researching the archeological finds by the LDS Church exceeds the standards required by the federal government.
Richard Talbot, director of the Office of Public Archeology at BYU, said in the release about the baptistry, "This was hallowed ground to them. It was the first place the saints could be baptized in a real font rather than in a cold river or lake."
The construction of the floor includes three layers of wood laid in crisscross fashion and held together with nails and screws. As the screws were tightened, the wood was pulled together to form a floor solid enough to hold water.
"The floor is in very fragile condition, with most of the wood deteriorated. One third is intact and our conservators at the Church History Library are working on saving it," Pykles said. "There is nothing else like it in the church."
Talbot added, "it's very exciting and a rare opportunity to see a baptismal font in its original condition. It's thrilling for us."
About a dozen of Talbot's students were also part of the dig. "We have been very careful because some of the bottom of the font remained," Talbot said. "Most of the font was destroyed when they razed the building. We're collecting it and we'll have analysts studying it. We know the functions. What we are trying to get is detailed information of the lives of the pioneers. How they constructed things. We want to know every little thing and take advantage of what we have."
Also unearthed was a water pipe used to fill the font and a drain to empty it. In early photographs of the baptistry a chimney is shown, which archeologists believe vented a stove that heated the water to make the facility usable year-round. Large quantities of painted plaster fragments also were discovered, revealing the original sky-blue color of the baptistry's interior walls.
According to Pykles, it has been suggested the church incorporate the historical blue paint in the temple's new baptistry. "It's kind of like what they did with the Nauvoo Temple."
Pykles noted that the inside furnishings and trim will be historically correct to the time period of the original building, similar to the Manti Temple.
Church historians used fire insurance maps to identify the location of the baptistry. The maps are dated from the 1880s to 1900. The maps were used to make a record of the structures and their locations to determine a building's risk of fire.
According historical records, the font was in use from the mid-1870s to sometime after 1906. By 1912 the baptistry had been razed.
"They wanted the baptistry to be the best it could be," said Deborah Harris, historical archeologist with the BYU Office of Public Archeology, in the release. "They treated the site with reverence and respect."
Harris also noted the temple site includes not only the limestone foundations of the early meetinghouse and the baptistry but the foundation of the 26-by-28-foot caretaker's cottage as well.
According to Pykles, scanners have been used to create a highly accurate and precise 3D record of the excavated foundations for the early meetinghouse and baptistry. He notes the tabernacle site is important because it includes all the dimensions of Latter-day Saint worship -- baptism, worship and with the new temple, temple ordinances which will occur once the temple is completed.
According to the history department, the church constructed at least four baptismal fonts earlier than the one in Provo. Three were located in Salt Lake City, and one was installed in the St. George Temple. In 1902, then-church president Joseph F. Smith wrote an article in the local newspaper urging local priesthood leaders to build a baptismal font in every major settlement of the church. The number of baptismal fonts increased sharply following this admonition.
"It's a rare opportunity," Talbot said. "The church has taken time and effort to do detailed studies and that is so rare. There are so many connections with many people who still live in Utah County."