By Elena Ricci
It’s 8:00 am. A seemingly inconspicuous plot of dirt sits quietly in the French Quarter, awaiting the arrival of a group of students and their professor. Slowly, our group begins to trickle in, unloading gear and preparing for a day of work. Tents are erected, bricks and trashbags moved to reveal perfectly manicured holes descending deep into the ground. Small talk, coffee runs and a layer of sunscreen sets off another day for the archaeological excavation at 810 Royal St.
French Quarter locals make their early morning rounds; they check on the progress of the dig, mention how they saw us on the news, and chat with each other about so-and-so who used to live in the building or so-and-so’s grandmother who owned the property before the collapse. Some regulars make a point to hang around the fence and explain what we are doing with curious tourists or random passers-by. They share the story of 810 Royal Street, past and present, with confident knowledge and a sort of “i’m in the know” pride that comes with being a long time resident.
By early afternoon, the locals have come and gone and the tourist crowd shuffles by in the ever increasing swamp heat that consumes a New Orleans summer. They stop, nonetheless, to chat and ask questions. It has become a running joke for the dig crew to predict what kind of daily commentary we hear; “What are you looking for?” “What’s the coolest thing you have found?” “I lost some gold down there years ago, let me know when you find it will ya?” “Y’all find Jimmy Hoffa yet?”. These inquiries have become commonplace, and we have become comfortable with our responses; “Colonial era artifacts” “Dirt that hasn’t seen daylight in 200 years is cool to us” “No gold” “No bodies”. It’s always amusing when we get a curve ball; someone asking if we found Blackbeard’s finger (original, but no), someone shouting questions at us from their convertible while stuck in traffic, or someone stopping to ask our professor to join him in a selfie.
Head down in a hole, paying attention to fragile artifacts and carefully following natural walls of soil types, is no match for the power or the public’s curiosity. Our onlookers are always met openly and with enthusiasm, regardless of heat, hunger or progress. There are moments on the dig when you can pause and look around to realize that there is a walking tour stopped at the front gate taking pictures of the site, a husband and wife at the back gate who stumble upon the dig in an attempt to cut through a parking garage, and a blond long haired man hollering down from the neighboring rooftop while smoking his every-hour-on-the-hour special cigarette. It’s moments like this that have brought the crew together, laughing at the fact that we are a “human zoo”.
As much as we joke about our interactions with the public, we understand wholeheartedly where their interest is coming from. We are as curious as our onlookers, taking breaks to check on one another’s progress, admire Native American pottery or musket balls retrieved from the ground, or help sift through difficult masses of clay in hopes of finding 200 year old relics. The number of people who have stopped to thank us for what we are doing has not gone unnoticed, as we are all aware and in awe of the rich past that we are lucky enough to not only explore but preserve. Keeping history alive through modern day conversations seems to be a regular pastime for New Orleanians. Working on an archaeological excavation in the French Quarter is the ultimate example of how important and special these types of conversations can be. As narratives unfold in real time, they correspond with the layers of the past we are slowly revealing. Casual banter with a fellow student is shared over a unit where the exposed earth shows evidence of the 1788 fire that nearly destroyed the city we live in. There is a tangible yet inexplicable uniqueness when the overlapping of time occurring in a single space is not only wildly apparent, but recognized with gratitude and appreciation from everyone who has a chance to