Digging Deep

The I-10 Mobile River Bridge Project is uncovering historical artifacts around the Bay Area, including the remnants of the Down the Bay neighborhood.

Field Technician Caleb Thomason with Wiregrass Archaeology digs the excavation site next to I-10 in downtown Mobile.
Right Field Technician Caleb Thomason with Wiregrass Archaeology digs the excavation site next to I-10 in downtown Mobile. Photos by Chad Riley

We’re standing under an industrial-grade tent on a small spit of land between I-10 and one of the Port of Mobile’s container terminals, sheltered from bands of rain sweeping up from the Gulf. Here, at the “Shotgun House Site,” archaeologists are hip-deep in an excavated hole where a shotgun house once stood, working under a gale advisory as the tent canvas snaps and shimmies in the wind. This is not unusual; they work rain or shine unless there’s lightning nearby. 

Suddenly, a burst of wind crashes into the tent, scattering the archaeologists’ tools and spitting grit in everyone’s faces. It happens too fast for anyone to react. The white canvas is a furious airborne sail, ripping the windward tentpoles from their sandbag moorings and pitching the tent framework toward the sky. Miraculously, no one under the tent is knocked out by the heavy metal poles as they fly into the air. The archaeologists scramble to grab hold of the tent before it escapes entirely. 

Crew members scattered across the dig site converge to lend some muscle. Four or five people hold down the tentpoles while a handful of others wrestle the unruly canvas, detaching it, furling it up on the ground and hauling sandbags over it to make it stay put amid the mud puddles. Within minutes, the excitement is over. Everyone is back to work, piling dirt into wheelbarrows, carefully hand-excavating features in the soil, taking GPS coordinates to map their finds, photographically documenting their process and preparing artifacts to send across town for further examination in the lab. It’s just another day at the office.

This dig is one piece of the sprawling I-10 Mobile River Bridge Archaeology Project, a multidisciplinary, multi-year effort that spans 13 excavation sites in Mobile and two in Baldwin County. The sites are set along the projected construction path of the long-anticipated new I-10 bridge across Mobile Bay. Because the bridge is a federally funded project, it falls under the National Historic Preservation Act, which requires planners to consider impacts on historic properties, including archaeological sites.

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Right Professor and project director Dr. Phil Carr in the lab at the University of South Alabama.

The archaeological work is a cooperative effort between the University of South Alabama Center for Archaeological Studies and Dothan-based Wiregrass Archaeology. Although the team will wrap up their field work well before the bridge construction commences, it will take years for them to fully analyze and draw conclusions from the mountains of data they unearth.

So far, they haven’t stumbled upon any previously undiscovered ancient civilizations or stashes of pirate treasure. However, according to project director Dr. Phil Carr, about once a week someone will drive by and holler, “You found any gold yet?” Usually followed by, “You’re digging in the wrong place.” 

What they discover is more subtle and, in many ways, more interesting than pirate treasure. They are uncovering new evidence of the confluence of cultures; the shifting boundaries of land and water along the Bay; evidence of long-ago hurricanes preserved in layers of sediment. Here at the Shotgun House Site on the day of the gale, team member Kelsey Clark painstakingly digs out the contours of a Native American feature — perhaps a storage pit — containing pieces of pottery dating to before Europeans first encountered indigenous peoples. Undisturbed for centuries, it lies only a few feet below the surface of the ground, unbeknownst to the people rushing by on the interstate above. A stone’s throw away, vestiges of pilings from a much more recently constructed house have left their own dark stains in the dirt.

Everyone on this project will tell you: Context is everything. A 1,000-year-old pottery fragment or piece of wood from a 19th-century ship is only valuable when combined with information about where it was found, how deep and what else was discovered nearby. 

Left The technicians from Wiregrass Archaeology work the excavation site next to I-10 in downtown Mobile. Right Field Technician Jeff Gephart rinses material in the hopes of finding something of significance.

“We’re trying to get all the data we can, but we don’t get a chance to make a lot of sense of it in the moment,” said Carr. As the team processes the field data, they’ll get a better sense of how to date their findings and how those findings relate to each other. “Then we can come up with some type of understanding of what life was like here in the past.”

The field team sets up each dig methodically. First, they dig long trenches several feet deep to determine the underlying stratigraphy or layering of the soils. Like tree rings, the layers mark the passing of time. Then they bring in heavy machinery to strip away the top layer of soil across the areas where they want to dig further.

“When you come to a place like this, there’s a material culture all across the surface,” said Carr. “Why aren’t the archaeologists picking all this stuff up? That might be a question someone would ask. I would have asked it at some point in my youth. I probably would have been grabbing everything, thinking it was valuable. Artifacts are valuable to us, but mostly when they’re in context.” Since the top layers of soil have been disturbed by modern activity, and the objects on the surface have mixed into a useless jumble, the team strategically scrape them away to reveal the better-preserved layers underneath.

Counted, Weighed, Measured

Since the archaeology team operates on a tight schedule, there’s no time to carefully analyze artifacts onsite. Instead, the unearthed materials are sent to an unassuming beige lab on South’s campus. Finding space for all the things that arrive is a constant challenge; they’re dealing with tens of thousands of items, ranging from raspberry seeds to rusty metal signs. Four Conex boxes outside the lab contain even more artifacts in the queue for processing. The artifacts arrive, for the most part, in bright orange Home Depot buckets with tape on the handle, labeling where they came from. Just the glass bottles and bricks alone threaten to overwhelm.

Everything must be meticulously sorted, counted, weighed and cataloged. The first step is to pour out a bucket’s contents into a tray. Then a lab worker, under the direction of manager Sean Coughlin, sifts through the dirt and sorts the tray’s contents by type. 

After the larger items are removed, the bits, pieces and dregs that are left behind — called fraction — are run through a series of screens: quarter-inch, eighth-inch and sixteenth-inch. “I’ll bag some liter portion of each of those in case something comes up later and we realize we missed something,” said Coughlin.

They also have a small flotation tank system at their disposal, which agitates dirt from the field in water. Lightweight materials like seeds and nuts float to the top. The rest sinks. 

Once sorted, the items are bagged and sent from the ‘dirty lab’ to the ‘clean lab,’ a little room off the main workspace where team member Chelsea Cook spends her days weighing, counting, categorizing and plugging items into the database. If a bag contains 2,000 fragments of glass, then she must painstakingly count every one of them.

Another task Coughlin tackles in his spare time when it’s not raining is cutting sections off bricks. “At some point, we’re going to get a pXRF, which is a portable X-ray diffraction machine that can give us the chemical composition of things,” he said. “We’re going to zap all the bricks to determine if we have bricks from similar brick manufacturers and if we’re seeing recycling of bricks from different buildings and different times.”

After the items are inventoried, they’re curated in the archaeology museum on campus. But not everything will make it that far. Determining what to keep is a game of give and take. They want to retain samples of everything for future analysis without being overrun by curated objects. Coughlin said that when they’re making those decisions, they look at the big picture.

“The woman who initially taught me archaeology made a couple of things clear to me: Not every artifact is sacred. As much as people think, ‘Ooooh, I’ve got the rusty nail,’ not every rusty nail is sacred. The other thing I try to keep in mind is that somebody’s paying for this…. This is a tax-dollar project. We must be good stewards of that money.”

While more in-depth analysis is still to come, some initial findings have piqued the team’s interest. Coughlin points, as an example, to a bag of chert nodules, small pieces of silica rock. They don’t look like much, but “they ain’t from here,” he said. “More than likely, these came over as part of the ballast on European ships” from, perhaps, the 18th or 19th century.

“We’re looking at trade, we’re looking at commerce, we’re looking at the connections between people and things in these areas. It’s more than just the pretty plates or pretty bottles,” he said.

To get that holistic perspective, the archaeologists coordinate with a research and mapping team as well as oral historians to knit together a variety of resources from past and present.

The research and mapping team combines archival history with contemporary geographic information system (GIS) data to add more of that all-important context to the work. They reference digitized Sanborn fire insurance maps to help the archaeology team know whether the structures they’re excavating were wood or brick, how large they were and whether there were outbuildings associated with them. They also reference census records and city directories to understand who lived in those structures. 

“For one of the sites,” said historian Raven Christopher, “we had one family that lived there for 60 years. So, then we can know that the artifacts from those periods correlate to that family. That can also tie in with the oral historians because then we can look for descendants of those people who lived in those structures to see if there’s anyone around today who can tell us more about it.”

Top left Sean Coughlin, historic archaeologist with the University of South Alabama, unloads crates of artifacts from the dig. Bottom right Items large and small are unearthed, cataloged and studied to give historians a better undertsanding of our area and its evolution, like this horseshoe held by Alisha Palmer with the University of South Alabama.

Down the Bay

The Shotgun House Site, and the other project sites in Mobile, are situated within a historic neighborhood known as Down the Bay. Its boundaries are a little blurry, depending on who you’re talking to, but it roughly includes a square of land bounded by Government Street to the north, Broad Street or Michigan Avenue to the west and the Mobile River to the east. 

“Down the Bay is remembered as a thriving, self-sustained interracial community,” wrote Brandon Clark in a recent blog post on the archaeology project’s website. “This diversity fostered the establishment of Black and immigrant-owned businesses. Black first responders, cab companies, newspapers, stores, cinemas, ‘juke joints,’ and over 32 churches and one mosque are all proud achievements Down the Bay boasts throughout its lengthy history.”

“Further, Down the Bay birthed a great many legends, from influential civil rights leader John L. LeFlore to baseball stars Hank Aaron, Satchel Paige, Willie McCovey and Amos Otis.”

Oral historians at South have conducted dozens of interviews with people with ties to Down the Bay. They have met with people in their homes, at the Texas Street community center, parks, offices — wherever people are most comfortable telling their stories.

Left Wiregrass Archaeology’s Project Archaeologists Jenni Bagget and Thomas Grace on the dig site.

“Texas Street had everything that you might’ve wanted so you didn’t have to go downtown,” said Valenia Withers McCants in her contribution to the oral history project. “You had a Miller’s; it was a variety store. And they had material, they had shoes and some people didn’t really go any further than Miller’s. Across the street from Miller’s was Parker’s Drugstore. And Parker’s Drugstore, as I recall, was really a first-class drugstore.”

The City of Mobile’s mid-20th century Texas Street Urban Renewal project and the construction of I-10 through the middle of the neighborhood displaced many families who found themselves on the receiving end of eminent domain. The impacts of those projects on the neighborhood were profound.

Side-by-side aerial photos of Down the Bay show the difference in stark contrast. The first photo, from 1960, shows a tidy grid of neighborhood blocks filled with homes and trees. The second photo, taken in 1974, shows I-10 slicing through the neighborhood’s core. Many of the surrounding blocks are barren; it looks like a hurricane swept through.

The history of this community is not very well documented, according to historian Dr. Ryan Morini, who, alongside his colleagues at South, has conducted more than 70 interviews so far. Even when Down the Bay is mentioned in history books, it’s not necessarily referred to as Down the Bay, or even identified as a distinct community. “Usually, if you read about Down the Bay, for the most part, I just see it summarized as being a ‘ghetto,’ which A., that’s a loaded term, and B., very much runs counter to what a lot of people tell us about Down the Bay,” he said. 

On the contrary, many of the people interviewed by the oral historians have described a tight-knit community, a sense that everyone knew everyone. If you were a kid and your parents were struggling to put food on the table, you ate at the neighbor’s house. Or, if your children strayed out of the yard when they were playing, other adults would watch out for them. “Multiple people actually said, more or less verbatim, that Down the Bay is family,” said Morini.

“That sense of togetherness is still there, or at least people said it’s still there in terms of reunions, funerals, different events,” he continued. “Whenever people come back together, there’s still that recognition of, ‘oh, you’re from Down the Bay.’ They’re part of a shared community that way.

“These 70 interviews are 70 accounts — 70 and growing — that otherwise just weren’t there,” he said. The archive, to some degree, sets the record straight, contradicting previous records colored by bias. 

Back at the Shotgun House Site, standing amid the historic clues scattered throughout the dirt, project director Dr. Carr drives the point home: “The artifacts themselves are pretty static. We have to tell their story.” The memories gathered through the oral history project help tell some of those stories more clearly.

The team hopes their combined efforts uncover a richer story of Mobile’s past that not only informs the present but also shapes its future. “Ultimately, if archaeology can help tell us why culture changes through time,” said Carr, “then we can maybe get a sense of what we should do to make a change in ways that we want it to change.”

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