New Orleans cathedral dig yields clues to history

New Orleans cathedral dig yields clues to history

Posted: Wednesday, July 9, 2008 7:39 pm
By: AP

By JANET McCONNAUGHEY Associated Press Writer NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Archaeologists digging behind St. Louis Cathedral are unearthing nearly three centuries of history: the porcelain head of a tiny doll, an ersatz colonial-era pipe from the 1800s, bits of pottery that Indians may have traded to the men who built New Orleans. The current cathedral, completed in 1794, is the third church facing what is now Jackson Square. A small wooden church built for the first colonists gave way in 1727 to a larger, more ornate building. That church burned down in 1778, along with most of the city. Now the first archaeological excavation ever at St. Louis, one of the nation’s oldest cathedrals, is turning up bits and pieces from the lives of people who lived and worshipped there. There’s been a lot of digging in the fenced rectangle behind the cathedral called St. Anthony’s Garden. Variously in history, it has held a real garden; an encampment for people left homeless by the “Great Fire” of 1788; an ice cream pavilion and flower market; and, after a 1915 hurricane, a temporary chapel. But until now there has never been an archaeological excavation anywhere on cathedral property, said cathedral spokeswoman Nancy Averett. After Hurricane Katrina toppled the garden’s live oak and sycamore trees in August 2005, the cathedral secured a Getty Foundation grant to restore the garden and further dig into its history. “What stories could be told!” said Betty Norris, a neighborhood resident who happened on a recent open house at which University of Chicago archaeology students and assistant professor Shannon Lee Dawdy, who is supervising the dig, showed some of their finds. The biggest find so far was at Norris’ feet. Next to an alley between the cathedral and the rectory — and probably extending under the spot where Norris stood — were probably the earliest remnants of European settlement in New Orleans, Dawdy told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday. There, the dig uncovered what may be some of the area’s first Indian trade goods. Fragments of Native American pottery, some painted red and others tempered with crushed shells, were mixed about equally with French artifacts from the early 1700s — bits of ceramics and the bottom of a wine bottle. At about the same level, a thin ’L’ of darker dirt indicates a spot where men lived while clearing trees for the settlement founded in 1718 by Jean Baptiste le Moyne as Sieur de Bienville. Researchers had only found one line of that ‘L’ by at that time. It might, Dawdy said then, be a wall from a temporary hut. The next day, she became much more certain, because they unearthed a square post-hole — a sign of French axes — and the line of a wall heading back toward the cathedral. “It’s at an angle — not lining up with the street grid established in 1724 — which is why I think it predates it,” Dawdy said in the interview, contemplating what could be the very start of the settlement. Dawdy, who has worked on digs in New Orleans for nearly 15 years, said the unglazed, red-painted pottery is of a type found in smaller quantities elsewhere in the French Quarter. The bits uncovered bear some similarities to Creek and Choctaw pottery and may indicate that Choctaw Indians, known to have traded at the old French Market through the early 1800s, were in the area a century earlier, “creating an economy specifically to interact with the French,” Dawdy said. Researchers may also have found an artifact associated with Pere Antoine, a Capuchin monk who came to New Orleans as Antonio de Sedella about 1780 under the Spanish Inquisition, was rector of St. Louis from 1795 until his death in 1829, and lived in a hut behind the church. She declined to identify the artifact, saying it awaits more study. After the 1778 fire destroyed the church and 80 percent of the city, she said, Pere Antoine let people who had lost their homes “basically establish a refugee camp here on this site.” An excavation diagonally across from the one with the French and Indian pottery has turned up later artifacts: slate pencils, an inkstand, a chunk from a glass ice cream bowl, the doll’s head about three-quarters of an inch tall and a simple white clay pipe stamped “Noel.” The pipe is a fake, she said, most likely a Victorian souvenir made to imitate colonial-era clay pipes. The doll’s head is probably Victorian, although other bits of porcelain arms and legs — the bodies were stuffed fabric — appear to date to antebellum times. Dawdy added playing marbles also were found. “We’re getting more toys than I’ve ever seen on any site in New Orleans,” Dawdy said. “You can imagine nannies and parents coming out to distract the small children during services, just like they would today.” Four marble-topped tombs in the garden are empty, the remains of the bishops who occupied them moved some time ago to crypts in the church. Monsignor Crosby Kern pointed his cane at one tomb and said, “that one will be mine.” The archaeologists did find many non-human bones. Pork bones speak of picnics and large fish bones of colonial meals. The bones of a cat and of a terrier-like dog, probably pets buried in the mid-1900s, were found in a third trench some 15 feet from the church. Lower still, more than a yard below ground, archaeologists found sloping bricks from an old sidewalk. Dawdy said part of the street was closed off after 1831, adding: “It’s probably the only colonial sidewalk left in New Orleans — the streets have been dug up over and over and over.” ——— On the Net: http://www.stlouiscathedral.org Published in The Messenger 7.9.08

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