Monday, July 13, 2009

Lode of past beckons under cobblestones

When the City brought in professional archeologists to assess the situation, they learned that it wasn't just a matter of a previous generation's trash. This November 14, 1994 article in the Commercial Appeal advances the story of the Tom Lee Monument that wasn't to be.

Lode of past beckons under cobblestones
by Tom Charlier

Article Text:

Racing against time, looters and a rising Mississippi River, archeologists mined just enough of a rich vein of Memphis history last month to get an idea of the treasures that might lie uncovered.

A new report says an archeological dig beneath the cobblestones at Beale Street Landing turned up everything from an 1890 Indian head penny to 100-year-old tableware and tobacco pipes. Unremarkable by themselves, the artifacts together help illuminate a "complex mosaic" of local history, says the report by Garrow & Associates Inc. of Memphis.

The Garrow firm completed a survey at the riverfront as part of a nearly $14,000 contract with the city, which plans to relocate the Tom Lee monument to the top of the site. The work was done to see if the area was of ample cultural and archeological significance warranting protection during construction of the project.

The answer came back a resounding yes.

"The potential is there for some very significant finds," said Guy Weaver, senior archeologist for the Garrow firm. He added that only the upper few feet of the site were explored during the one week of field work.

The report, describing the dig site as a significant resource, recommends that it be considered eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Further archeological work, it says, could shed light on more of 19th Century Memphis.

As a result, representatives of the firm, the city, the Corps of Engineers and perhaps the state will meet as early as today to discuss a possible agreement on steps that must be taken to minimize impacts during the monument relocation. The work is part of the expansion and overhaul of Tom Lee Park now under way.

"We'll have to work up an agreement between the city and state and us as to what is to be done when and if they (the city) get to do the work," said Jim McNeil, staff archeologist for the corps' Memphis district.

Weaver said he would like to see the city either avoid the Beale Landing site or redesign the project to minimize impacts. "If that isn't possible, then we'll probably push to go to some kind of major excavation" to obtain more artifacts, he said.

No one knows how much the archeological preservation work will add to the cost of the park project. City engineer James Collins said he hopes the city will be allowed to complete the monument work with a minimum of disruption.

"But if they tell us to find something else to do, we'll find something else to do," he said.

City officials want to move the obelisk because, "where it is now, you don't hardly notice it driving down Riverside (Drive)," Collins said.

But complications in the project arose this fall when a city contractor began excavating the riverbank so a foundation for the new monument site could be laid. Since Memphis had not received the federal Clean Water Act permit needed for the work, the corps shut the project down.

After old bottles and other artifacts were found in the hole, the city, as part of the permit process, commissioned the survey.

Archeologists and historians already were aware of the significance of the cobblestones. Fourteen years ago, low water on the river exposed high concentrations of glass, ceramics and other material.

Citing "available information," the report says the landing at Beale had been used by riverboats before 1840 and received heavy passenger traffic just after the Civil War. It was later the site of Vicksburg and St. Louis Anchor Line's huge freight elevator, which burned in 1878.

The landing served as a place to dump the city's refuse in the massive cleanup following the Yellow Fever epidemics of the 1870s, the report says. After that, in the early 1880s, the cobblestones were laid at the Beale site, it says.

The survey found ample evidence pointing to the presence of a dump beneath the cobblestones. In digging into the site, archeologists found a "rich 19th Century midden," or layer of debris, according to the report.

The various trenches dug during the survey yielded glass bottles made from molds, bottle closures that predated bottlecaps, porcelain doll fragments and toy dishes, buttons, ceramic tableware with backmarks identifying their makers, tobacco pipes, nails, oyster shells and other material.

Perhaps most interesting was the discovery of dozens of straight pins, Weaver said. He speculates that they might have held down cloth used during the laying of the cobblestones.

But the findings attracted the attention of local bottle-collectors, who "undermined" the site, the report says.

Weaver said archeologists arriving at the work trenches in the mornings would see signs that looters had been there overnight. "They haven't done a whole lot of damage, but they shouldn't be there," he said.

The area is now fenced, and officials point out that federal law prescribes tough penalties for illegally disturbing archeological sites.

When it comes to unearthing valuable information at the Beale site, the best may be yet to come, Weaver says. He thinks deposits beneath it could be stratified chronologically, meaning the deeper you dig, the further back in time you go. Shipwrecks, even relics from prehistoric Indians might lie 10 feet down, he said.

Weaver says further archeological work should involve "controlled excavations" at certain intervals extending all the way to the bottom of the debris.

Tennessee historical officials have concurred with the Garrow firm that the site is eligible for listing on the register, which automatically brings protection under the National Historic Preservation Act.

"This is a site that will tell us a fair number of things about what people were doing at that period of time," said Joe Garrison, review and compliance coordinator with the Tennessee Historical Commission. "It sort of reinforces some of the things we already knew, and it may call into question some of the things we thought we knew."

No comments: