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New Orleans Underground: The city beneath the city

Updated: Feb. 5, 2021 at 10:05 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - New Orleans is one of the most historically significant cities in the United States, but beneath the surface lies an archaeological treasure trove.

Some wonder if enough is being done to preserve and protect ancient treasures.

New Orleans is a city where the past culture oozes from the streets.

You can feel the past just below your feet.

And often times the deeper you go, the more you find.

Storyville disappeared more than 100 years ago after prostitution was declared illegal, but beneath the surface lies clues to its storied past.

The real treasure troves? In holes or privies discovered behind many of these historic homes where they had outhouses.

When plumbing came in, the privvies became dumpsites and many were a macabre scene.

Many macabre discoveries are among thousands of items now at the University of New Orleans.

Included, hundreds of almost perfectly preserved goat jawbones pulled from a French Quarter outhouse pit on St. Peter Street.

Archaeologists wanted to know why so many goat jawbones? With the help of city records they found in the early 18th century, a tailor lived on the site. The tailor used goat brain chemicals.

“The most likely explanation was they were using the brains for processing and tanning hides,” said Ryan Gray, PhD, with UNO Archaeology.

Experts say just about anytime you dig in the French Quarter and surrounding areas, you uncover evidence of civilizations dating back up to 300 years.

“We have found a few corked bottles and the archaeologist noticed they gave a boozy aroma,” said Eric Seiferth, curator with the Historic New Orleans Collection.

Archaeologists for the Historic New Orleans Collection uncovered many significant items when it recently renovated properties on Royal Street at the old Seignoret Broulatour House.

“In the well we found a whole lot of mid to late 19th century items tossed in the well after it was no longer in use,” said Seiferth.

Among them, tins with French labels used to store everything from cosmetics to sardines.

Digging through the layers they also found lines of black stratification in the soil which they believe are from major French Quarter fires dating back to 1788 and 1794.

“They noted they gave off a smoky aroma,” said Seiferth.

During one of the largest recent digs on Bourbon Street during its massive reconstruction, researchers uncovered an old streetcar railroad tie, now on display in the mayor’s office, as well as a 16 inch iron pipe dating back to one of the cities earliest water systems.

“It was part of the water system installed here in about 1888 give or take five years,” said Seiferth.

UNO’s Dr. Ryan Gray says one of the most significant archaeological sites lies beneath the area near the intersection of Toulouse and Rampart. That’s where a construction project uncovered hundreds of bodies; part of the old St. Peter Cemetery dating back 250 years.

“By my estimate, there were probably as many as 8,000 to 12,000 people interred on that block,” said Gray.

A building collapse at 810 Royal Street in 2014 provided archaeologists a rare opportunity to explore soil unearthed for 300 years.

“Thanks to the new owners after the building collapse they invited us in and gave us the opportunity to do three years of excavation,” said Gray.

UNO archaeologists found pottery and other artifacts from native Americans, southern France, and England dating back to the 18th century.

While the artifacts found beneath the streets and buildings of New Orleans are fascinating, few visitors get to appreciate them, but all that could be changing soon.

“We have launched an archaeological tour called “City within the city,” said Gray.

The reason for the some of these discoveries...federal law requires archaeologists be on hand for any federal project to protect archaeological treasures. But many fear those treasures may be lost because similar requirements are not in place for other projects.

“In New Orleans on private property there’s really no laws apply to what happens beneath the ground,” said Gray.

The other way to find historical artifacts, a private landowner must invite archaeologists to perform a dig.

“I think leaving it up to individual property owners doesn’t ensure that we’re going to be able to take it advantage of all those opportunities that we can,” said Seiferth.

Archaeologists would like to see that change to discover and protect the treasures beneath the historic homes and streets of New Orleans.

UNO’s Dr. Ryan Gray says many times homeowners who recognize the potential significance of the soil beneath their properties will call them to give them permission for an excavation. That can often delay a project but in many cases, Dr. Gray says excavation often reveals priceless discoveries, but tell us much about who we are.

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