Archeologists dig through 2,000 years of history before I-10 bridge construction begins in Mobile

By Allison Marlow
Managing Editor
allisonm@gulfcoastmedia.com
Posted 11/18/22

MOBILE — A dozen or so figures move cautiously, consistently, sometimes silently as the traffic on I-10 rumbles above.They have spent thousands of hours laboring under sweltering heat and …

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Archeologists dig through 2,000 years of history before I-10 bridge construction begins in Mobile

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MOBILE — A dozen or so figures move cautiously, consistently, sometimes silently as the traffic on I-10 rumbles above.

They have spent thousands of hours laboring under sweltering heat and through a month's worth of monsoon-like rains.

These archeologists, unlike their movie star counterparts, prefer Crocs on their feet over fedoras on their heads. The plastic-soled shoes cause less damage to the soil than heavy boots, a concern to them because under their feet sits thousands of years of history, neatly packed into what is sometimes just several feet of dirt.

Archeologists with the University of South Alabama have been tasked with selecting a handful of sites to excavate and examine before construction on the new bridge across I-10 begins. The sites, officials believe, are among the most undisturbed along the corridor.

This means artifacts found in those areas are found in context to the time they were put there rather than having been dug up and strewn about during construction of homes, businesses and even the current I-10 bridge that was raised in the area in the late 1970s.

Phillip Carr, chair of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work, said it is the placement of the objects more than the actual object that helps archeologists better understand an area and its history.

"By looking at material culture in certain strata, we can trace through time cultural changes and what life was like through time here in Mobile," he said.

THE PAST UNDER OUR FEET

Along the banks of Mobile Bay, there was a lot of life.

The region has been used by people for thousands of years, a fact reflected in the layers of dirt the archeologists have methodically uncovered.

"Most people think archeologists work in places like Egypt or Greece, but anywhere people have lived has archeology," said Rachel Hines, public outreach coordinator for the Center for Archaeological Studies at USA. "In a city like Mobile, people have been here for thousands of years. Some of the oldest artifacts we have found are 2,000 years old. You can't stick a shovel in the ground without seeing some remains of human activity because people have been living here so long."

That latest flurry of activity in this particular spot is when neighborhoods were cleared and leveled to make way for construction of the current Mobile Bay Bridge. The empty land left beneath the towering structure served for years as RV City during Mardi Gras.

So much fill dirt was dumped over the location when the bridge came that archeologists began the project with tractors rather than shovels to strip away the layers of red clay fill. When the lighter shades of soil emerged, the machines pulled away and the archeologists began to dig by hand.

To the untrained eye, all dirt looks a bit like, well, dirt. But the trained crew can easily pick out patches of earth where the soil is stained just a little darker, where it looks just a little different. This is where they will find their prize.
How far down they dig, well, it depends. Deeper doesn't always equal older.

"You can have very ancient artifacts closer to the surface, and other times you can have 1820s artifacts six and seven feet below the surface," Carr said. "It depends on what has happened since the deposits."

Humans move dirt to build bridges. Mother Nature moves entire shorelines when a hurricane roars through. Dirt moves, and with it so do the things humans have left behind.

WHAT THEY FIND

The most modern changes to the area are seen just below the last of the fill dirt that is scraped away — a sidewalk from the neighborhood that was razed to make way for the bridge.

A McDonald's bag that likely floated down from that bridge rests in the corner of one of the excavated holes. Carr jokes that they will leave that for the next crop of explorers to find.

Nearby is a trench dug to erect a wall or maybe a fence line, possibly in the colonial era. The lack of artifacts is not unusual. In 1720, people didn't have much left over to throw away, and archeology, Hines said, is at its core the art of digging through history's trash.

"A lot of this is stuff people left behind or didn't want. It's broken. It's unusable, but it tells a story," she said.

Hines said the days here are long, tedious, meticulous. There is a lot of digging, note taking and map making. The excitement is slow to build. Sometimes, the researchers don't even fully know what they have uncovered because they have uncovered too much.

The crew finds stuff every day.

"The volume of stuff is astounding," Hines said. "Sometimes, it's hard to know what you've got until you even get it to the lab.

"It's an amazing project that shows the whole span of time in Mobile, from 2,000 years ago living on creeks, it's got colonial occupations and life until the bridge was built. There are layers of time stacked on top of each other," she said.

All of those artifacts are carried over to a screen where water is used to brush off the bulk of the dirt that has crusted on over the centuries. Lines of brightly colored wheelbarrows stack up throughout the day as the diggers fill them over and over again.

The washed relics are labeled and kept in buckets for transport to the lab at USA. There they are analyzed, mapped and researched.

"Archeology is just such a long process," Hines said. "For every day in the field we spend three in the lab because it takes so long to sort and process the items."

She said once the items are analyzed and researchers understand how they interact with the location, a process that can take years, then lives emerge.

"Once we understand all the artifacts and their meaning, they begin to tell nuanced stories," she said.

A BRIDGE RUNS THROUGH IT AND FOREVER WILL

The I-10 Mobile River Bridge Archeology Project began in 2006 as planners started considering placement of a new Mobile Bay bridge.

Thanks to the National Historic Preservation Act, the teams were included in the planning and given time to survey sites before they were buried or destroyed by heavy equipment. The act dictates that any federal construction project or project receiving federal funds that will disturb the earth is required to check for historical properties before construction begins.

The team selected 15 sites to survey along the bridge's route, 13 in Mobile County and two in Baldwin County near Spanish Fort. Each, the team felt, had more to reveal about the area's history.

Hines said the pair of Baldwin County sites are especially exciting because they date back to the 1400s and were home to the native American populations in the region. Those sites are slated to be excavated in the spring of 2023.

What happens if the team uncovers an archeological wonder that is unprecedented and amazing?

"We dig it. We report it. And we build a bridge," Carr says flatly.

The notion stings, but, standing on top of layer upon layer of civilizations who built their homes, farms and businesses on top of those who came before, it's hard to argue against.

This time, those who came before will be remembered.

"We are so fortunate that we get to come in before the project and do the work to make sure we get to gather as much data as we can and learn as much as we can before things are destroyed," Hines said. "In the past, it would just get destroyed."

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