Digging It

For the archaeologists of Weaver & Associates, it's not what you find; it's what you find <i>out</i>.




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"I've been meaning to write an article called 'Finding Frankie Leflore,'" says Guy Weaver, sitting in the Broad Avenue offices of the archeological firm that bears his name. "Out of all those unmarked graves, hers was the only tombstone left behind — the only person with an identity, though the tombstone had been moved. Our research revealed she was a teenager who had been murdered near Airways and Brooks Road in 1926. Trying to find her body out of all those graves became quite a detective story for us."

In March 2003, during expansion of the FedEx facility at Memphis International Airport, construction workers uncovered a long-forgotten African-American graveyard. Because it is illegal to build on, or otherwise desecrate, a cemetery, Weaver & Associates was called in to locate all the bodies — eventually recovering 65 of them — carefully remove them from the site, place them in new caskets, and have them reburied in the Shelby County Cemetery.

It was time-consuming work, using probes and other devices, to locate the decaying wooden coffins and retrieve the bodies. "They were pretty elaborate caskets," says Weaver, "and the project revealed interesting burial practices, since some of the people had been buried with newspapers, medicine bottles, and other personal items."

And Frankie Leflore?

"I think we can build a pretty good case that we found her," says Weaver.

*****

moving bodies, exploring old wells, digging trenches, and sifting through dirt — it's all in a day's work for the archeology firm that Weaver established in Memphis in 1998. After getting his undergraduate degree from the University of Memphis, Weaver earned a master's degree from Southern Illinois University. After school, he initially began working for a firm in Atlanta specializing in cultural resource management, known in the trade as CRM. "That's a fancy term for archeology," explains Weaver, "but CRM includes many other things, such as architectural history, historical research, and cemetery relocations."

Weaver moved to Memphis in 1989, still working for a CRM firm in Atlanta, and opened his own firm nine years later. He moved to a former metalworking studio at 2563 Broad in 2002. The staff now includes archeologists, historians, museum specialists, lab directors, conservationists, and graphic artists.

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The new company's first major project was the Hilderbrand House, a nineteenth-century plantation in Whitehaven that was about to be demolished to make way for an expansion of the noise-abatement area at Memphis International Airport.

"Any time federal funding is involved in projects, they are required by law to do cultural resource work, so they come to us," says Carmen Dickerson, an archeologist and Weaver's business manager. "We have worked for the U.S. Forest Service, the Department of Agriculture, the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the City of Memphis, and private companies and individuals."

The Hilderbrand House was particularly interesting because the plantation had owned slaves before the civil war. "We found evidence of the old slave quarters," says Weaver, "and the former kitchen was just a wealth of early nineteenth-century artifacts."

Even though a battery of high-tech devices is now available to researchers, including ground-penetrating radar and magnetometers that will pick up slight changes in the soil that indicate hidden structures, "at Hilderbrand we did it the old-fashioned way," says Weaver. "We dug test holes systematically across the site, and pinpointed areas where there was high artifact content."

Then the digging began. Many of the items recovered were strictly utilitarian, such as bottles, plates, coins, beads, and an antler-handled knife. But the Hilderbrand site also turned up something rather unusual — a tiny metal charm or medallion in the shape of a clenched fist. It will be one of more than 100 items recovered by Weaver & Associates to be featured in an exhibit called "Underground Memphis," on display at the Memphis Pink Palace Museum from February 21st through October 12th. The exhibit will focus on the changing patterns of African-American life in Memphis in the early and late nineteenth century.

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"No one is quite sure how these charms were used, but they are of tremendous interest right now," says Louella Weaver, manager of the collections department for the Pink Palace and Guy Weaver's wife (yes, they met while working on a dig together some 25 years ago). "Only five or six of these charms have ever been found, and only in slave quarters. Guy has been in communication with others who have found them, and some think they are a holdover from African religion. Also — because of the clenched fist — there is the possibility they are a call to rebellion. They are so small, they could have been kept hidden. We just don't know."

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in april 2002, the City of Memphis contracted with Weaver & Associates to conduct one of the largest urban archeological studies ever conducted in West Tennessee. Developers swept away buildings from a six-block area south of Beale Street to construct the new FedExForum, and Weaver's archeologists conducted a comprehensive survey of the entire area.

"It's not like Indiana Jones," says Weaver, "fighting off snakes and robbers and all that. But there are certainly dangers involved. At the FedExForum site, a wall collapsed, and I barely got out of the way. There's an old axiom in archeology: Dig fast and die young. We try to be careful, but it can be pretty exciting at times."

Archeologist Brian Stetzer was assistant field director at the FedExForum site. "That was a fascinating project," he says. "We had a crew of 16 people out there, six days a week for three months, and I believe we recovered several hundred thousand artifacts."

One of the most surprising finds was a trench 60 feet long that was packed with more than 9,000 stoneware beer bottles. Many were in pieces, but hundreds were intact.

"There were variations in the size and shape of the bottles," says Stetzer, "but the ones that were stamped carried the name Spruce Beer, from a company called Sall's. We tracked down information about the company and determined it was in business in the late 1870s. Now you look at something like that and think, well, there must have been a tavern right here."

But the records don't show it. Old fire insurance maps, which carefully delineated the size and function of every building in Memphis, show that general area was boarding houses. The huge cache of bottles — some of them to be displayed in the Pink Palace exhibit — remains a mystery.

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Another enigma is an expensive pistol recovered from an ancient well.

"One of the more interesting things we found was a Colt pocket-model pistol manufactured in 1861 for export to England," says Stetzer. "The question is: How did a gun manufactured in Connecticut during the Civil War, for sale to England, end up at the bottom of a cistern in Memphis — still loaded?"

Stetzer jokes that his fellow archeologists immediately began looking for a body. "It's very possible that there was a shooting and the person then tossed the pistol in the cistern to get rid of it," he says. "Or maybe the gun was just thrown away years later because it was obsolete or broken."

Wells, cisterns, and even privies are lucky finds for urban archeologists. In Memphis as in other areas, people believed that "bad air" was the cause of the yellow fever epidemics of the late 1800s, so they capped or filled in many cisterns and wells. "They were trying to fill up the wells and get rid of them," says Weaver, "but you have to remember that after the epidemic of 1879 the city was deserted, and when people came back, they had all these personal effects of all the people who died. There was no organized sanitation system back then, and there was all this stuff to dispose of, so a lot of it got dumped in old wells and cisterns."

These are important discoveries for archeologists — "When you fill in a well, you get a nice time capsule," says Stetzer — and dozens of them were located during the FedExForum project. Archeologists digging through decades of muck recovered keys, coins, china, bottles, even ancient toys. The head of a china doll, its painted-on features still looking new, will be displayed in the Pink Palace's "Underground Memphis" exhibit.

Beale Street was our city's red-light district, explains Louella Weaver. "If you look at the Sanborn [fire insurance] maps, you will see female boarding houses, which was a euphemism for bordellos. And you'll find an interesting mix of male and female artifacts when you look at that sort of activity — tobacco-related items like pipes, liquor bottles, toiletries, guns, knives, gambling tokens, and even toys. After all, if you have prostitution and female boarding houses, you are going to have children, too."

An especially intriguing item recovered at the Forum site and featured in the Pink Palace exhibit will be a tiny china plate, shattered into more than a dozen pieces. The alphabet is painted around the border, and in the center is the dancing character of Jim Crow.

"That's my favorite find," says Weaver. "It's such an important artifact on so many levels. For one thing, it shows that people even back then were reinforcing stereotypes. Then, to find it right at Third and Beale shows us a tradition of music at that corner going back 150 years. And the story of Jim Crow — a white person in blackface gyrating and jumping around, singing rhythmic songs that were associated with African-Americans — well, he's kind of a proto-Elvis."

*****

demolition of historic buildings is an obvious loss of our heritage. Other damage is more subtle.

"One of the most endangered cultural resources right now is all these old family cemeteries that used to be associated with farmhouses or plantations," says Guy Weaver. "If a developer finds a cemetery, he must leave it in place, or he must move it. According to state law, you must allow visitation from any descendants."

Sometimes, those projects can get complicated. Last year, a Germantown landowner wanted to sell his property to the developers of Saddle Creek. Nestled beneath some pines on the edge of the property were the graves of nine members of the Williams family, who had been buried there in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

"The owner of the property wanted us to move the graves to McVay Gardens," says Carmen Dickerson, referring to the overgrown cemetery on McVay Road in Germantown. The problem is that the long-dormant cemetery wasn't accepting any new burials.

"So we researched it and found the oldest living descendant of the Williams family, who it turns out is a member of Germantown United Methodist Church, which owns the old cemetery. As a favor to her, they allowed the remains to be moved there. In return, we restored the cemetery, by cleaning up the area, repairing the broken headstones, mapping the graves, and then writing a report on it."

All this work was paid for by the landowner, and the result is a well-groomed cemetery today with a neat row of new gravestones.

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other projects over the years have included cultural resource surveys of a historic foundry in Wayne County, Tennessee, exploration of slave quarters at the antebellum Tullis-Toledano Manor outside Biloxi, and — closer to home — a study of the cobblestone landing in Memphis.

"The cobblestones are probably one of the most significant historic sites in this area," says Weaver. "It is the last remaining stone-paved landing on interior waterways. There used to be others — especially at St. Louis and Cincinnati — but those have been destroyed."

The work dispelled certain myths about the stones — namely, that they were originally used as ballast from steamboats. "You don't need ballast for boats on the Mississippi," says Weaver, "and our research shows the landing was actually built by a contractor out of Ohio, using two different types of limestone."

When archeologists removed a layer of stones, they made a surprising find: ancient shoes belonging to men, women, and children — even several iron horseshoes. "Before they laid those stones, that was pretty tough mud," laughs Weaver. "People trying to walk along that landing just stepped out of their shoes and left them there."

Weaver & Associates stays busy. Stetzer, among others, is currently monitoring the renovation of the post office at Front and Madison — originally constructed in the 1870s as the Customs House here — into the new University of Memphis law library. It can be a tedious job. While construction crews are digging trenches around the building for new sewer and electrical lines, Stetzer keeps an eye on the backhoes.

"I need to be there if they hit an old well or cistern," he says, "so we can stop the excavation, check to see if it's significant, and then take appropriate action." As of January, nothing has turned up from all the digging, but Stetzer says, "I'm absolutely certain there is something there, because of the age of the building."

The firm is also monitoring construction plans for the new Interstate 69 corridor, which will stretch from Canada to Mexico and pass through West Tennessee. In February, Weaver says his crews are working around Dyersburg, "walking the proposed corridors, finding sensitive archeological sites and cemeteries, and then working with the designers to avoid those sites."

The work, it seems, never stops.

"I've been doing archeology for 35 years," Weaver says, "and I'm still amazed at what is in the ground, sometimes buried for thousands of years."