University of New Orleans archaeologist unearths relics in oldest African American neighborhood

March 07, 2001

(New Orleans)--What do you think of when you hear the word archaeology? Egyptian pyramids? Stonehenge? Indiana Jones? Absolutely. But University of New Orleans' urban archaeologists are quick to add images of New Orleans. There are no pre-Columbian temples here, no world-renowned prehistoric civilizations, but there's plenty to learn from local excavations, including the oldest African-American neighborhood in the United States, the historic Treme' district, the site of a recent dig.

Treme' is home to St. Augustine Church, and Father Jerome LeDoux, S.V.D. explains, "We could only win" by hosting the investigation, which led to the excavation of more than 2000 artifacts which help tell the history of the site from its beginnings as a brickyard in the early 1700's to modern times. What did they find?

Bricks: These were thin French colonial-style bricks, believed to be made during the site's tenure as a brickyard.

Roofing tiles: U-shaped roof tiles made of a brick-like substance. Interestingly, these are similar to the roof tiles used during the heyday of the Roman empire. This indicates that roofing technology hadn't changed much in over 1000 years.

Ceramics: Native American pottery sherds account for 10% of the artifacts recovered. These sherds were found alongside European fragments, suggesting that area Indian Nations traded regularly with the European settlers. The presence of these pots opens "exciting new questions" regarding social relations among the Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans who lived side-by-side in colonial New Orleans.

Brick Courtyards: Three of them, laid one on top of the other. The earliest dates from the 1720's. The last is a walkway used during the convent/school period between the mid-1800's to the early 20th century.

Trash Pit : A veritable treasure trove filled with broken bottles, everyday ceramics, animal bones, and even a porcelain king cake baby! This particular pit was used by the nuns and children who lived here during the site's life as a school. The convent's ceramics were relatively fashionable, a trait unexpected considering the austere reputation of the religious life.

Additional, another university archaeologist dug deep into Evergreen Plantation, one of the most intact plantations in the South, a National Historic Landmark with 37 19th-century buildings. These include 12 slave cabins dating from the 1830's and occupied until the 1940's. Evergreen still produces a substantial crop of sugar cane.

A variety of artifacts were discovered: animal bones that suggest a wide range of foods in the Black Creoles' diets; ceramic cooking, serving and dinnerware, including fine bone china; utilitarian--and non-utilitarian-personal items: combs, a thimble, perfume and patent medicine bottles, remnants of furniture, religious statues, coins, and children's slates and toys.

Both researchers are still analyzing the artifacts, including a mysterious glass tube and a "whole lot of buttons" that may have been used for playing mancala, or perhaps as jewelry or for counting.
The information above is contained in an article from the University of New Orleans upcoming Quest magazine, a university publication highlighting research, technology and scholarly activity. For a copy of the magazine, contact information of researchers or other information, e- mail Joseph White at or call at 504-280-6622.

University of New Orleans

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