Monday, July 13, 2009

Urban dig: Getting down to the roots of history

Here is a November 28, 1995 feature story from the Commercial Appeal about Guy Weaver, the archeologist who led the team that investigated the Cobblestone Landing and wrote the Garrow Report.

Urban dig - Getting down to the roots of history
by Christine Arpe Gang

When Guy Weaver tells people he's an archeologist, they sometimes ask him how many dinosaurs he's found.

"We're not into dinosaurs; we're into people," said Weaver, senior archeologist in the Memphis branch of Garrow & Associates, an archeological firm with headquarters in Atlanta.

As an urban archeologist, Weaver is usually one step ahead of a bulldozer, surveying sites slated for construction involving federal funds or the transfer of state property.

The area he is currently excavating is at North Main and Auction and will be the site of MATA's North End Terminal, a transfer point for buses and trolleys and a parking facility for autos. A building will house MATA's information center and be available for lease to private businesses.

Any project in which federal funds are used must have an archeological survey done before construction begins. The survey involves analyzing artifacts from several test trenches to determined if the site is archeologically "significant." If it is, a full-scale dig may be ordered.

In recent days, Weaver has been standing in ditches as deep as he is tall, looking at layers of soil, determining their color and texture and calling out code numbers to an assistant who records them.

It's tedious work, not to mention damp and cold in the winter and hot and humid in the summer, but it's what Weaver thrives on.

"I can see 150 years of history compressed into 1/2 foot of soil," he said.

The terminal location was once the site of two train depots: one for the Memphis & Ohio line dating to 1855 and the other for the Louisville & Nashville line dating to 1888.

Weaver already knows where the stations were because there are maps detailing exactly their locations.

So why, one wonders, is it necessary to go to the work and expense of digging trenches and sifting through soil to search for clues to the past when it has already been recorded in books and documents?

"Historical documents don't tell the whole story because they can be incomplete and written from the viewpoint of social elites," Weaver said. "It's a 'great men, great events' type of approach.

"There was a whole segment of the population who couldn't write and were not written about. We're looking for evidence of what happened to ordinary people," he said.

"As we like to say, the dirt don't lie."

A little over a week ago, state archeologist Nick Fielder visited the MATA site to determine whether the building foundations, well filled with shoes, bottles and vegetable remains, as well as tags from luggage or mailbags are significant enough to warrant a full-scale dig.

"Under the foundation for the L & N station is one for the M & O," Fielder said. "We know very little about the M & O, so I decided they should open up the area a little more. We're looking for architectural and engineering-type information about the building."

After Weaver further explores the old foundation, Fielder will come back again to see what he has unearthed.

"We're not just looking for neat bottles and pottery," Fielder said. "We're looking for additional information that can't be gleaned from further research."

Weaver's report will help designers of the MATA project minimize the impact of construction on the artifacts underneath the site.

"Our first choice is to preserve the artifacts," Weaver said. "We'll record their location and maybe 200 to 300 years from now, some other archeologists might have cause to investigate."

If it's clear construction will destroy the artifacts, Weaver said his firm will try to recover whatever it can before construction begins.

"Some people think we are anti-development, but we're not," Weaver said. "We're against uninformed development."

Tom Fox, director of service development for MATA, said this is the first MATA construction project that required an archeological survey. It will cost $45,000. The entire project, including land acquisition, will cost $5.4 million. Construction is slated to start next March.

Archeology, Weaver says, is like detective work.

"We're not ivory tower scholars," Weaver said. "We're striving to retrive information that can be useful and to manage cultural resources."

During the building of the new AutoZone headquarters downtown, for example, construction crews ran into several wells that were the receptacles of trash from early inhabitants of the site.

Weaver and his staff found a 130-year-old pair of shoes, thousands of fragments of bottles and dishes, remnants of clothing and bones and vegetable matter that tell about the diets of the people who lived there.

Weaver's wife, Louella Whitson Weaver, is also an archeologist and conservator of artifacts for Garrow & Associates. Items from the AutoZone project were pieced together and photographed for the final report. They are the property of AutoZone.

It took 1 1/2 years to complete the AutoZone work - from excavation, artifact retrieval and conservation to preparing the written report.

"Some of the objects (from the AutoZone site) are museum quality," Weaver said. "Objects have a special quality to capture the past."

Weaver, 42, describes himself as an "Army brat" who lived in Europe and numerous cities in the United States before setting down his roots in Memphis. A graduate of Memphis State University, he said coming to Memphis was a logical choice because it was always "home" to his transient family. His father is from West Tennessee and his mother from North Mississippi.

While growing up in various places around the world, he was fascinated with the differences and similarities between people. He wanted to study primitive people in New Guinea or South America but said he was too late. The tribes have been studied or have disappeared. So he turned to the next best thing - archeology - a science that emcompasses anthropology, social sciences, geology and logic.

"You need to be curious and patient because it can be slow going," he said. "You need to be detail-oriented but in control of the big picture. And you need a perspective of time and understanding of events, trends and patterns that transcend your own generation."

He is working for the City of Memphis to assess the archeology, geology, history and design of the riverfront cobblestones, which he calls "the last great cobblestone landing in the country." And he is always on the lookout for evidence of Fort San Fernando, a Spanish fort dating to 1795 he believes to be about a block south of the MATA project.

Despite the fact that there are other archeologists working in Memphis, Weaver said there are "not enough archeologists to keep up with destruction in the Mid-South. So many Indian sites have been plowed away for shopping centers or dug out for ditches. Burial grounds are nonrenewable resources..."

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