The archaeology program at the University of South Alabama partners with the Alabama Department of Transportation to – literally – uncover forgotten secrets of Mobile’s history.
As per federal regulation, ALDOT teamed up with USA archaeologists to recently explore an area near the west entrance to the Wallace Tunnel on I-10, where ALDOT hopes to modify some exit and entrance ramps. Continuing a two decade partnership, the USA archaeology team is currently working on excavating the former residential area in an effort to preserve any hidden historical treasures.
“Sometimes there’s nothing, and sometimes there’s something,” Greg Waselkov, professor of anthropology at USA, said. “In the downtown area, more often than not, we find something.”
What the explorers have found adds color and detail to the ever-growing history of Mobile. Under many layers of earth, Waselkov and the other excavators found clues dating to the colonial days, from around 1750 to 1820. However, what was once a residential area also has a high water table, slightly delaying the digging process.
“Because that area was pretty swampy and marshy originally, it creates difficulty for us to dig because it’s underwater a lot of the time. But being underwater, the preservation is better for wood, leather, any type of organics,” Waselkov said.
Learning the lay of the land took some time as well. Though the excavation area rarely floods today, frequent flooding that occurred centuries ago greatly altered the landscape. After learning the topography and accounting for landscape changes over the centuries, Waselkov believes that they uncovered rice fields dating back to the Civil War era. If this is the case, a very important piece of a much larger puzzle has been found.
“It’s something we haven’t seen in Mobile before,” Waselkov said. “Rice was a pretty big export during the colonial period, and in fact one of the major reasons that Africans were brought here as slaves – specifically from west Africa – was that rice was part of the traditional economy.”
According to Waselkov, slaves who knew how to grow and harvest rice were brought into the United States, where plantation owners had little knowledge of the lucrative crop. Waselkov hopes that through more exploration, these suspicions can be confirmed and woven into the national slavery narrative.
“It’s a really important party of the story of slavery in America. It’s the first time we’ve seen it in the Mobile area,” Waselkov said. “[Finding this] is totally unexpected, but maybe it’s something we can study in Mobile and help kind of tell the bigger story of rice domestication and use throughout the world,” Waselkov said.
Waselkov and the archaeology staff and students greatly enjoy searching out the city’s history through their efforts, though they often must work within prescribed contract guidelines, such as with ALDOT and their current project. Waselkov explained that grants tended to be more exploratory while contracts cover a very specific scope of work.
“As archaeologists, we tend to look at what we’re able to look at. So, when the DOT does a project, that’s where we go. We often can’t pick and choose what we study … By getting grants, we’re able to do some focused work,” Waselkov said.
That focus of late has been Old Mobile, which Waselkov calls the “earliest part of town.” Before that, the team focused on an area around the current Dog River Bridge, where they found around 200,000 artifacts of an old plantation home. The project also revealed more information about Mobile’s slave economy and history.
“Slavery was a major part of the story from the very beginning,” he said. “Archaeologically, [the slaves] have been hard to study because slave owners and the slaves themselves tended to live in very close quarters early on, so physically it’s hard to separate the artifacts. But gradually we’ve kind of sorted it out, who lived where, in that location.”
Waselkov explained that as archaeologists, their goal was not to simply dig and find out what was there before: they wished to educate the community about that history and how it came to be found. And thus the University of South Alabama Archaeology Museum came to be. Completed about two years ago, the project as a whole has been ongoing for more than a decade.
“There’s a lot of people who have been promoting the idea that we need to tell the community what we’ve been learning. Not to just keep digging stuff up, but to actually display as much as we can and try to tell a story about Mobile’s past from an archaeological point of view. We tend to focus on how we know about the past through archaeology,” Waselkov said.
Waselkov himself helped design many of the contents of the museum exhibits, and other team members contributed by building the exhibits themselves. In all, the building and exhibits cost around $2 million.
The exhibits within the museum do more than recount the history that the archaeologists have uncovered.
“We use archaeology as the lens to explore what we know about the past. We didn’t want to replicate what the history museum did, so really archaeology is the springboard into, ‘How do we know what we know about the past’,” Barbara Filion, the museum’s associate director, said.
The USA Archaeology Museum is located in the Delchamps Archaeology Building on USA’s campus. For more information about hours and visits, contact Filion at [email protected].