Monday Commentary
11:38 am
Tue January 10, 2006

Digging for History Downtown

When a local developer set out to put houses on what used to be a city parking lot on the corner of Front and Church street, there was one unusual step: before they could start building up, they had to dig down. WHQR's Megan Williams visited the excavation

The deed of sale for this property required an archeological assessment, and that's exactly what Chris and Kathy Southerly, of Southerly Research Group, have been called in to do. They stripped the asphalt from the old parking lot, dug three feet down in the sand, and now what's left are piles of rubble, squares of old bricks, and small wire flags stuck in points of interest.

Kathy Southerly enjoys the metaphor of turning back the pages of a book to describe their dig. "Land gets reused by different groups of people and they build over top of old structures and it just gets layered and layered and layered," she says. "You know, one layer may have evidence of people living here in the 1900s, a little bit lower, you get a site that dates from maybe the 17 or 1800s, so that's really interesting."

The professionals aren't the only ones interested. Throughout the dig, residents of the south side have stopped by to ask questions and chat with each other. Their attendance isn't lost on Southerly. "You sort of hear little conversations start with the neighbors. And in some cases, neighbors who've never really talked with each other before, and different parts of the neighborhood. So it's really been an activity that's brought the community together a little bit, I think."

This assessment doesn't have any real goal, no theory to test or museum to collection to bolster. Instead, Southerly says, the process is about keeping an open mind.

"You know, everyone asks, 'what are you digging for,' and it sounds like a really smart answer, but it's not meant to be, I say, 'we're digging for what we find.'"

What they've found so far are several surprises. In the center of the plot, not marked on their earliest maps, is a small building which might once have been a blacksmith's shop. And behind it, a deep round cistern, its bottom still holding a bit of water after all these years. But the real treasure chests are the privies scattered across the property. In the days before garbage men and sanitation departments, the outhouses were mini-landfills, a convenient place to toss broken bottles and worn-out goods.

Southerly pulls several excavated bottles from their temporary storage in cardboard wine cases. Flaking iridescence with age, they run the gamut from tiny apothecary remedies with stamped labels, to earthenware ginger beer bottles, to a long football-shaped green glass one - a torpedo bottle.

"This was an aerated water bottle," Southerly explains. "It's a very interesting bottle. And we actually found a whole one, which is pretty neat, because I believe they're fairly rare."

Bottles for themselves aren't generally worth much, but they're an easy clue as the archeologists work to date the other features of the site.

The bottle collection rests against the rear bumper of the company's SUV, currently serving as a mobile storage lab. Among the spare boots and trowels in the trunk are dozens of Ziploc plastic baggies rattling with shards of glass and pottery.

Southerly picks up several bags holding flaking red lumps. "We have bags and bags and bags of nails... As nails break down in the soil they sort of obtain this look to them that..." She pauses to elaborate delicately. "If it looks like cat jazz, it might be a nail. There's really no other way to describe it."

Out in the lot, Southerly joins her assistants shoveling and sifting dirt from one of the old privies. The team is less than a week away from finishing the site - the discovery of the cistern has already kept them at it longer than expected - and yet their trowels keep turning up finds. On this afternoon it's a broken sugar bowl, a matching teacup, and a long, mysterious glass flue. This dig is the archeologists' one shot at this particular slice of history.

"Archeology is a destructive science. Once you dig a site, it's gone. So you have to be very meticulous in record keeping. Probably the least attractive part of archeology, but also the most important. When we get back to our lab in the office, we'll start to compile all of this data and reconstruct the site in the computer."

Those computers will soon be the only place where these ruins exist. The builder intends to use some of the old bricks for landscaping, but the cistern and foundations and all the undiscovered shards will soon resume their role as a substrata to development.

"Land will inevitably be reused. There's no stopping progress. And that's not really the goal of archeology; it's not to stop progress. It's to record what's going to be demolished any way. We're really the middle stage between a derelict site, like this one was, and progress."

-- Megan Williams, WHQR News