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Digging back 250 years on the St. Louis riverfront to better learn who we are

MoDOT archaeologists work at their most recent downtown excavation site.
Áine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio
MoDOT archaeologists work at their most recent downtown excavation site.

This story was originally published Aug. 9 and has been updated to include audio and photos from "St. Louis on the Air."

In late November 1922, in the Valley of the Kings across the Nile from Luxor, Egypt, British archaeologist Howard Carter, accompanied by his patron, the Earl of Carnarvon, knocked a tiny hole in what he believed was the door to the tomb of the boy king Tutankhamen. His assumption was correct. Carter peered through the aperture. Lord Carnarvon asked if he could see anything.

“Yes,” Carter said. “Wonderful things.”

Just shy of a century later, a young archaeologist named Michael Meyer and his crew are working near another river of legend, the Mississippi, the better to provide for posterity facts about the social and material history of the place in which we live.

Hewing to rigorous standards established by William Flinders Petrie, his protégé, Howard Carter and other modern archaeologists, Meyer and his crew are slowly but certainly revealing the past downtown.

Archaeologist Michael Meyer is a senior historic preservation specialist with the Missouri Department of Transportation.
Credit Áine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio
Archaeologist Michael Meyer is a senior historic preservation specialist with the Missouri Department of Transportation.


It is unlikely indeed that Meyer will strike literal gold. But already the archaeological team has enriched and expanded knowledge of our Colonial past through this meticulous endeavor. Thanks to enlightened policies of the state of Missouri and its Department of Transportation, this exacting process will continue through 2016.

The dig is practically within spitting distance of the Mississippi River and just a couple of blocks south of the grounds of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and the Poplar Street Bridge.

Trains pass overhead frequently on the railway deck of the MacArthur Bridge; a span closed to automobile traffic since 1981, and make a tremendous racket. Previously Meyer and his colleagues dug at a site under the Poplar Street Bridge, which handles an enormous and rackety flow of traffic between Missouri and Illinois. Meyer hoped things would quiet down when he moved the short distance south.

Didn’t happen; if anything the noise is worse. But the work goes on in spite of cacophony, and neither roasting heat nor soddening rainfalls shall keep the MoDOT from its appointed tasks. 

For the layman, the racket, the heat, the mud and the work appear to define unpleasant working conditions and tedium. Long trains do indeed come through frequently making conversations impossible; the sun bakes the site and the rainfall soaks it. Neither condition is good for the archaeological remains.

Meanwhile measurements are made painstakingly and recorded scrupulously. We watched two team members at work on a trench, with one team member holding a measuring stick and another recording data in her book of field notes. It is a slow and careful process.

Meyer indicates patterns of discoloration in the soil: evidence of trenches dug to begin wall construction.
Credit Áine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio
Meyer indicates patterns of discoloration in the soil: evidence of trenches dug to begin wall construction.

Variations in the soil, which can be critical to the virtual reconstruction of building foundations, are noted and protected. Outbuildings, including privies, are given as meticulous care as the floors and foundations. Privies are often repositories of what previous generations regarded as junk and are beloved by archaeologists as treasures.

Currently, the team is working a site called “Fifi.” Meyer names the sites for previous occupants or owners. The two sites under the Poplar Street Bridge are the Madam Haycraft and Louis Beaudoin houses. (“Madam” Eliza Haycraft was a wealthy 19th century businesswoman, philanthropist and brothel keeper.) “Fifi” was the nickname of Nicholas Beaugenou Jr., who owned but probably didn’t occupy one of the houses being studied now. “I thought it made an interesting site name,” Meyer said.

“So now we have worked on three historical sites, the Madam Haycraft site, the Louis Beaudoin site and the Fifi site, and each one has intact French colonial architecture,” Meyer said, remains of it to be precise.

In the last four years and this summer, he said, the team has identified four different very early structures and two different and houses dating back to the 1760s through the 1780s. Four different types of individuals are connected to them as occupants or owners: a fur trader, a soldier and merchants. So we have a cross section of society in this little neighborhood. From this 250-year plus distance, the archaeologists can determine how their qualities of life were different from each other.

Meyer said, however, that colonial society was rather homogeneous, and by gaining an understanding of it, the better able archaeologists – and we – can compare life in early St. Louis with nearby settlements such as the European Cahokia site across the river and other European colonial settlements in the vicinity.

St. Louis had 180 residents and the town’s footprint was very small in the 18th century. The Poplar Street and Second Street sites were on the margins of the French village grid, but were home to families of substance.

The geographical and social center of the village was about where the Saarinen Arch stands now, and it occupied not only the highest ground but also the greatest prestige. The first church of St. Louis, King of France, was there, as were the residences of the founders, Laclede and Chouteau, Meyer said.

The field notes book for the South Second Street
Credit Sarah Kellogg | St. Louis Public Radio
The field notes book for the South Second Street contains meticulous notes.

The historical record to be found on Second Street is an omnibus. Although precious few artifacts remain, what was there until recent times may have been scattered by looters looking for 19th century bottles.

Diggers are the nemeses of all serious archaeology from the Valley of the Kings to downtown St. Louis. On Second Street, bottle diggers brought in heavy equipment, Meyer said, and went at the sites with a reckless vengeance, and the looter trenches they cut disturbed the French Colonial layer enormously and detrimentally.  

“It is so important to leave things as they are,” Meyer said.

Nevertheless strong evidence remains. Going back to prehistory or protohistory, there are indications -- scant it turns out -- of a Native American presence. Mixed in with Colonial French material are shavings from stones being shaped into tools, for example. There is evidence of earthen ovens, which were not representative of French culture, but are of Native American origin.

Human habitation did not cease in this Poplar Street and Second Street neighborhood until the wholesale clearances of buildings in the 20th century, and of general urban decline. Although French influences and residencies continued into the 19th century, the Louisiana Purchase opened land west of the Mississippi to Yankee settlers, and St. Louis was an attraction.

The preponderant French Colonial building practice from the 18th century was poteaux-en-terre, or sometimes poteaux-sur-sol. In both, log posts are erected perpendicular to the earth to form walls. With the former, logs are placed side-by-side vertically in a trench, and secured there with dirt and stones. With the latter, the posts rest on a sill. These buildings began to disappear as gradually American influences made inroads.  The first American building in St. Louis came in 1813, constructed behind the French-Colonial Fifi site house. It was residence and boarding house, built of brick. A brick outhouse is associated with the 1813 house.

A MoDOT archaeologist rests before continuing excavation.
Credit Áine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio
A MoDOT archaeologist rests before continuing excavation.

Decline began in the 1850s, with the presence of brothels, saloons and tenant houses. And by the middle of the 20th century, most every bit of evidence of an architectural past, above ground and recognizable anyway, was gone.

And yet, all is not lost, not at all. Archaeology provides many windows on the past. When Howard Carter spoke of the beautiful things, he must have been cognizant of the fact that even as beautiful as the “things” are, a wealth of information lies beyond aesthetic magnificence, a treasure house of stories to tell about a monarch, a man, his times and his past and the mythology that clung to his future in the afterlife.

Similarly on Second Street, Michael Meyer and his crew are gathering evidence of St. Louis that reaches back before its official European settlement and to the present moment in our history. In between, there are stories being unearthed about the development of the rich, unique and complex culture of our city as it developed from frontier village to modern city.

Thus a certain connection is established between the treasures of Valley of the Kings and the Mississippi River Valley, in which the jagged remains of an 18th century teacup have certain equity with a golden mask. Both are instructive remnants and reminders of the past, and the means of linking us with the past, and giving testimony to our diverse roots and ideas and their coming together where we live.

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