Digging For Answers

New Orleans is a city that knows a bit about finding silver linings. So, when a historic building collapsed last October, the University of New Orleans’ Dr. Ryan Gray also received an opportunity. The urban archaeologist is now leading a team of students in a rare excavation within the French Quarter.


The owners of 808 Royal Street reached out to the professor and invited him to see what he could find. So, Gray and a team of students performed some tests on the site and then started digging today. 


As Gray showed NoDef around the dig, he clutched a ream of historic maps and overlays, noting that the area was previously home to several structures. He explained, “One of our goals is to identify remains from these 18th Century buildings that extended into this lot. The lot lines have changed over time.”


The UNO team believes that two formal constructions plus some temporary structures existed on the land. “The best case scenario would be to find really well preserved levels that we can differentiate between a 1731 structure that was here, a 1722 structure, and that earliest off-grid development when people were clearing the land.”


The expert says that the building that collapsed was built around 1800 or 1801, but “because it was in place for so long, we’re hoping that it actually preserved the 18th century components really well.” The collapsed building essentially acted like a cork on a wine bottle and the crew is in the process of decanting the artifacts.


The sinking City is not a recent phenomena, but in this case it is a benefit. “Historically, people had good reason to keep building up. That works very well for us as archaeologists. That means that when earlier buildings were demolished or were burned down or whatever, people tended to just spread out that rubble and build up. Everywhere that I’ve excavated in the French Quarter, there were at least three feet to four feet of levels from earlier structures and domestic debris.”


Gray has worked on other excavations in the Vieux Carré, digging at Madame John’s Legacy and by St. Louis Cathedral. He is hoping the new site will provide a continuation of the finds at those sites.


“At both of those projects, we found remains from when the land for the city was first cleared and the early colonists were living in what were basically palmetto huts. We found deep down in the colonial levels evidence of those palmetto huts. So, we’re hoping that we might actually find some of that early development preserved here,” elaborates the archaeologist.


Gray says that this building period in New Orleans’ history is a missing link of sorts. “Understanding that phase of development is important because that is when the documents were the sketchiest. It doesn’t sound that exciting in description, but it gives us a unique glimpse into the everyday life of the people that created the city.”


Asked what the assortment of broken pottery and other shards will yield, Gray’s excited answer betrayed archaeology’s place as a subset of anthropology. “We can know about what people ate; what people wore; what people traded; what type of economic activities people were engaged in. When we start to put all of those things together in context, then we can start to talk about things like power dynamics, surveillance and control, ideology, and how a new Creole identity was formed in the town.”


Gray adds that one of the more exciting finds has been Native American pottery, some associated with the Choctaw and the Appalachi, mixed in with the colonial items. The team aims to gain a better understanding the relationship between the settlers and the natives in the early years of New Orleans, a topic oft ignored in contemporary records.


UNO has a working lab and the pieces will initially be transported there to be cleaned, analyzed, dated, and written up. Because the land is privately owned, eventually the owners will determine what becomes of the finds. For now, they have created a website to share the progress


Gray also knows that some things in the Quarter stay the same. Pointing at one group of students working beneath a tent positioned near the front of the property, he says, “They’re also our public relations team. There will be a lot of people stopping an d asking questions.”

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