Urban Archaeology


We’ve had friends and family members living in Atlanta for close to 30 years, and although I knew it was the hub of important aspects of American history, it never occurred to me to think of it in archaeological terms. At first consideration, I think about archaeology as the study of ancient cultures in far away places. Yet, with family in countries like Greece, I acknowledge that awesome layers of history can be just under the surface, or deeply buried and unearthed as cities grow with constructions of buildings and transit infrastructure.

This piece in the Georgia State University Magazine made that quite clear.

Treasures of Terminus

From its days as a railroad boomtown to Sherman’s tinderbox to one of America’s great cities, Atlanta’s history runs deep. The Phoenix Project, more than 100,000 artifacts collected by a team of Georgia State archaeologist in the 1970s, tells the city’s story through unearthed historical objects.

There is buried treasure at Georgia State University. Stacked high and deep in more than 500 boxes stashed throughout the labyrinths of Kell Hall, more than 100,000 artifacts tell the story of Atlanta’s history.

These boxes contain the lost pieces of a tumultuous past that dates to the city’s earliest days — bullet casings from the Civil War, mystery tonics in antique glass bottles, creepy toys, fashion accessories, ancient grooming tools and much more. Many of them still await examination and haven’t been opened since archaeologists first packed them four decades ago.

This massive array of objects is called the Phoenix Project, and Georgia State professors and students have been methodically studying, cataloging and mapping each item since 2011.

Collected all over the city between 1976 and 1980, the objects belong to the largest archeological collection ever associated with Atlanta. They are the fruit of one of America’s earliest urban archaeological projects — the roving excavation that followed construction crews as the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) cleared land, leveled blocks and tunneled underground to build the first iteration of its rail system.

Jeffrey Glover, associate professor of anthropology, has curated the Phoenix Project for years in hopes of providing the public with a different kind of city history, a slice of Atlanta’s past through the lens of historical objects.

Catalog No.: P1848/170 Swamp Root Kidney, Liver and Bladder Cure, c. 1890, manufactured by Dr. Kilmer & Co., Binghamton, NY.

Choosing one box among hundreds, Glover removes a small amber bottle that once held Valentine’s Meat Juice, a concentrated beef tonic from the 1870s. Advertisements said it could help with gastroenteritis, dysentery and even cholera.

“It was supposed to bring vitality,” Glover says, “like an early energy drink.”

From another box, he takes out the misshapen head of a porcelain doll. Featuring dark, empty eye sockets and covered in burn marks, the scary toy looks hungry for souls. While Glover affectionately calls it the “creepy doll head,” its official artifact ID is “a3161,” written in impeccable script with archival ink across its neck.

That’s because the archaeologists who bagged all this stuff in the 1970s methodically described and organized each item using a numbering system adapted from the Georgia Department of Transportation. For example, the “a” in “a3161” stands for “general artifact” while the number indicates the item was the 3,161st general artifact to be cataloged from that accession. (And there are about 100 accessions.) Containers, such as glass and pottery, begin with “p,” and building materials with “m.” Plant remains use “eb” for “ethnobotanical” while animal bones start with “ez” for “ethnozoological.”

Just one of the standard cardboard bankers boxes can contain dozens, if not hundreds, of artifacts, each wrapped in brown paper and labeled with a unique artifact ID. Though they’ve all been recorded in a logbook alongside a one-line description, unwrapping each one is like opening a birthday present because you don’t know exactly what you’ll get.

“It’s an excavation of boxes,” says Lori Thompson (M.A. ’16), assistant laboratory director at New South Associates.

History can be hard to come by in a city like Atlanta. Where people are usually too busy building new things to preserve the past, a collection like the Phoenix Project becomes priceless.

With roots that stretch back to the 1830s, Atlanta began with little design or forethought as a sleepy settlement at the end of Georgia’s Western & Atlantic Railroad. Down on the far side of the tracks, it picked up the name “Terminus” and later incorporated as Atlanta in 1847.

Anchored by nothing more than a milepost and a railroad crossing, it quickly sprouted into a boosterish, slapdash town of factories, taverns and tenements in neighborhoods with names like Slabtown and Snake Nation. But after just 17 years, the entire city burned to the ground during the Civil War.

It has continuously reinvented itself ever since, evolving from a dense trolley town to a sprawling metropolis of interstates and high rises. Now the heart of the nation’s 10th largest metropolitan area, it has often been willing to raze historic structures and even entire districts to make way for new developments.

But thanks to a Georgia State project from the 1970s, that pattern was broken — at least for a moment.

By the 1960s, a century after Union forces torched every block, the population had grown large enough that a rapid transit system became necessary. MARTA was established in 1965.

Around the same time, the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 was signed into law, requiring projects with federal funding to take into consideration their impact on historic or archaeological sites. According to Glover, the act created the industry of “cultural resource management” in the U.S.

A few years later, the Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act became law in 1974, which obligated agencies that received federal funding to preserve historical and archeological data that might otherwise get lost or destroyed.

The construction of MARTA was one of the first major urban projects to take advantage of the two preservation acts, giving archaeologists the opportunity to survey and excavate miles of Atlanta dirt, rich with buried relics, for the first time.

Built where homes, taverns and dumps once stood, where Confederates and Federals once waged war, the MARTA lines would start at the city’s center near Five Points. From there, they’d run in the four cardinal directions to follow the paths set by the early railroads that spawned Terminus.

Tasked with completing 13.7 miles of heavy rail and opening 17 stations by 1980, MARTA broke ground and started laying track in February 1975, a year after the agency demolished the first house in the train’s path. Under pressure from the new federal legislation, MARTA contracted with Georgia State in 1976 to conduct archaeological surveys during the demolition and construction phases.

Led by Roy Dickens (B.A. ’63), an associate professor of anthropology, a team of archaeologists, student assistants and volunteers spent the next five years salvaging and collecting as many items as they could before MARTA displaced them forever.

Dickens’ goal was not only to preserve Atlanta history but also, as he wrote in the journal Historical Archaeology, to understand the development of American city life.

The field of urban archaeology in America was in its infancy when construction began, so Dickens and his team had to create their own procedures for collecting, excavating, preserving and cataloging the items they found. Dickens had also spent his career up to that point concentrating on prehistoric archaeology, so the project was even more unfamiliar…

…The exact number of items collected is still unknown, but between 1976 and 1980 more than 100,000 were cataloged, wrapped in brown paper and placed into site-specific bankers boxes. While Glover and his team have fully reprocessed more than 20 percent of the artifacts, about half of them have never left their boxes.

Now known as the Phoenix Project, the artifacts have risen from the ground — and come back from the dead — to make up the largest archeological collection ever associated with Atlanta.

Its size and variety allow it to be used across disciplines at Georgia State. Glover has a student interested in bio-anthropology who wanted experience working with and identifying animal bones. Now she’s using animal bones from the collection to complete her study and create a sub-collection for future students.

Over in the English Department, Robin Wharton has been using Phoenix Project artifacts in her writing courses. In one class, each student selects an object to catalog and study over a semester. Creating digital 3-D models of their objects and writing essays about them, Wharton’s students gain experience with historical research, digital technology and writing all at once. (Their work is available to the public at AtlantaArtifacts.net, where visitors can play with some of the students’ 3-D models and read their research.)

Items students have analyzed include a Civil War–era belt buckle, a porcelain teapot, a decorative makeup compact, a pewter canteen and, of course, the creepy doll head.

One student studied a 19th-century toothbrush handle and used it as a prompt for an essay on the history of dental hygiene. In 1866, Massachusetts’ Florence Manufacturing Company began mass-producing the “Pro-phy-lac-tic Tooth Brush,” which was made of plastic, not bone like its predecessors. The company spent a lot on advertising, and the student found old ads to include with the essay. On AtlantaArtifacts.net, you can view the toothbrush handle in three dimensions, complete with bits of dirtied bristle.

According to Wharton, her classes are “pulling archival material off the shelf and putting it into the hands of students,” which not only benefits the Phoenix Project but also gives students an “authentic scholarly context for learning.”

View more photos of artifacts and read the entire article from the Georgia State University Magazine here.

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