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The history of Mobile--underfoot!

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Guy Busby
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The biggest highway project in Alabama history will be passing through some of the oldest parts of Alabama’s oldest city. APR Gulf Coast Correspondent Guy Busby has been following efforts by archaeologists to study areas of Mobile in the path of the Interstate 10 bridge.

As traffic passes overhead on I-10, archaeologists are at work. They’re scraping away at layer of buried bricks may not have seen the sun in a century. A few yards to the north, a modern brick replica marks the spot where the French built Fort Conde more than three hundred years ago. Work will start on the nearly three billion dollar I-10 bridge over the Mobile River. The goal of the archeology team is to learn what it can about centuries of history that’s about to be buried under the highway.

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“So, the University of South Alabama Center for Archaeological Studies has a project with the Alabama Department of Transportation to do the archaeology ahead of the new I-10 bridge construction,” said Philip Carr. He’s an archaeologist with the University of South Alabama.

“So, we've identified fifteen different locations along the new right of way that need to be examined because they have historic significance and we're going to investigate what they can tell us about the past before we get a new bridge,” he said.

Carr says that like the highway project, the dig is a big undertaking.

“We have indigenous people's occupation going back several thousand and we do have evidence of that 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 essentially the different occupations in layers buried beneath our feet here in downtown Mobile,” Carr said.

The crew doesn’t make any major finds on this day. Still, Carr says one interesting find is the land itself. Today, the Mobile River is a couple of blocks to the east. Three hundred years ago, the spot we’re standing on was the riverbank

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“One of the things that surprised me though is that when you're standing over, say, by the Cruise Terminal in sort of that direction closer to Mobile Bay and it seems like you're on solid land and it's been here for thousands of years, you're standing on actually sixteen feet of fill dirt. From the colonial times onward, we've been making land in downtown Mobile and it makes me wonder what did that landscape look like in 1700 or 1730 or even 1830 and then what have we sort of done to ourselves in terms of Mother Nature now with hurricanes and storms and so forth, why we have such flooding is it because of decisions made hundreds of years ago about making land and taking away the barriers to those floods,” Carr conjectured.

It’s slow work. Archaeologists use trowels and brushes, carefully scraping and studying every color and type 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 love things that we can date precisely in time, but we find animal remains, plant remains. That helps us understand diet in the past. There's broken bottles, broken ceramics. They give us a sense of what life might have been like in the past as well. So, we'll put all of those different pieces of evidence and try to get a sense of what was it like to live in Mobile in the 19th century,” Carr said.

Part of the site where they’re working has brickwork from more than 100 years ago. That work came to end abruptly with a concrete parking lot laid down about 50 years ago.

“This has been a good place to live for a long time and in some cases, as Hamilton was saying, in our progress in building new things, we've destroyed what's there and in other cases, we buried it and when we buried it and when we bury it, it allows to get a chance to investigate that and learn something about the past we didn't know before,” he said.

“Not all of this has been what you call a success,” said Hamilton Bryant, an archaeologist with Wiregrass Consulting which is working with USA on the project.

“You're standing on top of a giant brick platform you can't really see, but it is exposed the north and to the south, but that's part of the deal. You identify what has been obliterated and what hasn't and we try to extract what we can,” said Hamilton.

Bryant points out the variety of layers directly underfoot.

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“It's the most complicated project I've ever worked on, so it's a lot to take in, a lot to manage. I'm only managing a small part of it, but I'd say this is a success in that we had a parking lot that's never been looked at before. We peeled off the 40-year asphalt and within a foot, there's an intact, late 1800s, early 1900s, articulated brick surface and a few feet away and slightly lower there are numerous features including three parallel wall trenches, which is a type of construction that you would see in colonial times more so than later times,” said Hamilton.

“There were four houses that fronted Royal Street right over here, so we're digging basically in their back yards,” said Sarah Price. She’s a lead archaeologist with Wiregrass Consulting. She says it looks like we’re standing in someone’s back yard from the 1800s.

“We're getting some structural remains, which is what Logan is digging on over there and then this obvious brick patio area of those houses, but what we hope to get into are things like their trash deposits, prior to the collection of trash by the city or county, people just sort of dumped it in the back yard,” Price said.

Price says to an archaeologist trying to find out about people’s lives centuries ago, trash, or even toilets, can be a treasure.

“The south end of the site has a lot of privies, the former bathrooms before indoor plumbing and those are pretty interesting because people disposed of things in those facilities they didn't necessarily want anybody else to see and then we get a lot of trash disposal because they were big holes, so when they were abandoned people would throw, it's a convenient place to toss trash,” Price explained.

“Archaeology can also tell the stories of people who might not have been recorded in the history books or records of the past. Sarah Price.

“But then you also get people who were not included in the historical record and the artifacts can tell us a lot about those people that the historical record usually leaves out,” said Price. “People who didn't own property, obviously, pre-Civil War, slaves. There was a large Native American population in Mobile up until the 1830s, 50s. Those people weren't considered citizens, so they don't end up in census records.”

Crews started working in November and they’re scheduled to continue until 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's got a great history. It's right underneath the surface,” he said.

Guy Busby is an Alabama native and lifelong Gulf Coast resident. He has been covering people, events and interesting occurrences on America’s South Coast for more than 20 years. His experiences include riding in hot-air balloons and watching a ship being sunk as a diving reef. His awards include a national Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists as part of the APR team on the series “Oil and Water,” on the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Some of his other interests include writing, photography and history. He and his wife, Elizabeth, live in Silverhill.
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