The story of Mobile–underfoot! | Alabama Public Radio
The largest freeway project in Alabama history will pass through some of the oldest parts of Alabama’s oldest city. RPA Gulf Coast correspondent Guy Busby followed archaeologists’ efforts to survey areas of Mobile on the way to the Interstate 10 bridge.
As traffic passes over I-10, archaeologists are hard at work. They scrape away a layer of buried bricks that may not have seen the sun in a century. A few meters to the north, a modern brick replica marks the spot where the French built Fort Condé over three hundred years ago. Work will begin on the nearly $3 billion I-10 Bridge over the Mobile River. The archeology team’s goal is to learn what they can about centuries of history that are about to be buried under the highway.
“So the Center for Archaeological Studies at the University of Southern Alabama has a project with the Alabama Department of Transportation to do archeology before the construction of the new I-10 bridge,” said Phillip Carr. He is an archaeologist at the University of South Alabama.
“We have therefore identified fifteen different locations along the new right of way which need to be investigated as they have historical significance and we will investigate what they can tell us about the past before we have a new bridge,” said- he declared. said.
Carr says that, like the highway project, the dig is a big undertaking.
“We have aboriginal occupations going back many thousands of years and we have evidence of this early occupation by Native Americans and then the French, the British, the Spanish all found this to be a good place to live and we have basically the different occupations in layers buried under our feet here in downtown Mobile,” Carr said.
The crew made no major discoveries that day. Still, Carr says an interesting discovery is the earth itself. Today, the Mobile River is a few blocks to the east. Three hundred years ago the place where we stand was the riverbank
“One of the things that surprised me was that when you’re standing, say, near the cruise terminal in a sort of direction closer to Mobile Bay and it looks like you’re on solid ground and ‘It’s been there for thousands of years, you’re actually standing on sixteen feet of earth fill. Since colonial times we’ve built land in downtown Mobile and I wonder what that landscape looked like in 1700 or 1730 or even 1830 and then what have we kind of done with ourselves in terms of of Mother Nature now with hurricanes and storms and so on, why do we have such floods is it because of decisions made hundreds of years ago about creating land and removing barriers to these floods,” surmised Carr.
It’s slow work. Archaeologists use trowels and brushes, carefully scraping and studying all colors and types of dirt. Carr says it’s not just about finding something, it’s how it all fits together.
“Coins are particularly valuable to us, not because of the monetary aspect, but they have a date on them. We like things that we can date precisely in time, but we find animal remains, remains of plants. It helps us understand the diet in the past. There are broken bottles, broken ceramics. They also give us an idea of what life might have been like in the past. So we’re going to put all these different pieces of evidence and trying to get a sense of what it was like to live in Mobile in the 19th century,” Carr said.
Part of the site where they work has bricks that are over 100 years old. This work ended abruptly with a concrete car park laid out about 50 years ago.
“It’s been a good place to live for a long time and in some cases, as Hamilton said, in our progress in building new things, we’ve destroyed what’s there and in other cases we’ve buried it. and when we buried it and when we bury it, it allows for a chance to investigate it and learn something about the past that we didn’t know before,” he said. .
“All of this hasn’t been what you would call a success,” said Hamilton Bryant, an archaeologist at Wiregrass Consulting who is working with the United States on the project.
“You stand on top of a giant brick platform that you can’t really see, but it’s facing north and south, but that’s part of the market. You identify what has been erased and what has not and we try to extract what we can,” Hamilton said.
Bryant emphasizes the variety of layers directly underfoot.
“It’s the most complicated project I’ve ever worked on, so it’s a lot to take in, a lot to manage. I only manage a small part of it, but I would say it was a success in that we had parking that had never been seen before. We peeled off the 40 year old asphalt and within a foot there is an intact articulated brick surface, late 1800’s, early 1900’s and a few feet and slightly lower there are numerous features, including three parallel wall trenches, which is a type of construction you would see in colonial times more than in later times,” Hamilton said.
“There were four houses that faced Royal Street right here, so we’re basically digging into their backyards,” Sarah Price said. She is chief archaeologist at Wiregrass Consulting. She says it looks like we are standing in someone’s garden from the 1800s.
“We get structural remains, what Logan is digging on there, and then this obvious brick patio of these houses, but what we hope to address are things like their waste dumps, before the waste collection by the town or county, people kind of threw it in the backyard,” Price said.
Price tells an archaeologist trying to uncover people’s lives centuries ago, trash, or even toilets, can be treasure.
“The south end of the site has a lot of toilets, the old bathrooms before the indoor plumbing and those are quite interesting because people were getting rid of things in those facilities that they didn’t necessarily want anyone other lane and then we get a lot of trash because they were big holes so when they were abandoned people would throw them away, it’s a convenient place to dump trash,” Price explained.
“Archaeology can also tell the stories of people who may not have been recorded in the history books or archives of the past. Sarah Price.
“But then you also get people who weren’t included in the historical record and the artifacts can tell us a lot about those people that the historical record typically omits,” Price said. “People who didn’t own property, obviously, before the Civil War, slaves. There was a large Native American population in Mobile until the 1830s, 50s. These people were not considered citizens, so they do not end up in census records.
Crews began work in November and they are expected to continue through next March, doing what they can to find out all they can about life in the port city over the centuries. Hamilton Bryant sums up the work this way.
“Mobile has a great history. It’s just below the surface,” he said.