In the field at Royal Street

By Andrew Smith

Every weekday starts the same: I wake up (solely by the promise of a CC’s medium-roast to come,) put on the archetypical archaeologist’ hat, try to find a parking spot close to the Quarter, and begin the walk that breaks the first sweat of the day. This sweat is crucial to hitting the ground running once on-site, and it is in many ways the first bit of dirty-feeling in the day which makes all the others yet to pass, possible. Mike Rowe hasn’t done an episode at the site of an archaeological excavation, but make no mistake, this is one dirty job. I don’t forget I’m lucky though. Despite the dirt, the heat, and the inquiring throngs of passersby who’ve been fed movies like National Treasure, this is pretty sweet for school.

The most common question we get from the hundreds of folks who walk past each day (which even now rings in my head) is “Have you found anything interesting?” It has become my tag-line response from our street-side unit (formally known as “N3 W17,” informally now as the “PR site”) to say something silly about minuscule mouse ribs seeing sunlight for the first time in a couple centuries, but I happen to think it’s all rather alluring! That said, rat bones aren’t everyone’s idea of interesting, so if you’d like, you can visit our website and see for yourself what our project has yielded.

Of much greater interest to me than the actual artifacts are the larger narratives weaved by piecing together our fragmented finds. The items that I’ve personally unearthed the most have been sherds of ceramic dinnerware, fragments of bottles, and personal effects such as beads, buttons, and fingernail-long pieces of smoking pipes. This assemblage, which could easily be mistaken for the trash of a modern party, paints my beloved city in a familiar shade; New Orleans seems always to have been a good time town.

But alongside these relics also lies the story of a people who stood their ground. As of my writing this, my colleagues and I have just today exhumed the ashes of our collective past: a centimeter thick layer of the burnt remains of New Orleans circa 1788. The parallels to Katrina speak for themselves, and much better than I could at that. I’ve choked up more than once telling this tale to tourists who, you can’t really blame ‘em, just don’t fully get it… but maybe the work of projects like this help them to get an idea. Only time and dirt will tell.

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