A French Quarter excavation yields some tantalizing history
The Times Picayune
Sunday, March 06, 2005
By Bruce Eggler, Staff writer

Dig a hole almost anywhere in the French Quarter and you're likely to discover at least a shard or two of history.

Archaeologist Shannon Dawdy, who recently dug several holes in the 500 block of Conti Street, thinks she has uncovered evidence at the site that could help answer at least two intriguing historical questions: Put a trained archaeologist in charge of the digging, and you'll likely do better than that. -- What and where, if anywhere, was the New Orleans institution made famous in the song "The House of the Rising Sun"? -- Was there an earlier American Indian settlement on the site of what became the French colonial town of New Orleans?

The Historic New Orleans Collection decided to commission the archaeological dig after it acquired the property at 535-37 Conti St. The site, a one-story parking garage for most of the 20th century, will be used for a new archives building for the historical museum and research center. The collection has had similar digs done at several other sites it owns in the Quarter.

It picked Dawdy, an assistant professor in the anthropology department at the University of Chicago and visiting scholar at the University of New Orleans' College of Urban and Public Affairs, to oversee the Conti Street excavation. Because time was short, the local archaeological firm Earth Search also was hired to get as much digging done as possible before contractors moved in late last month to start demolishing the garage.

Because the floor of the garage was covered with concrete, the first step was to jackhammer about a dozen test holes through it and then dig down 3 or 4 feet to see what turned up. Dawdy and her colleagues then picked seven sites for full-scale excavations, each about 3 feet square and 4 feet deep. It was known that the Conti Street site had been occupied by two successive hotels in the 19th century. The second one opened in 1828 and was known over the years as the Richardson, the Conti and the Conti Verandah. It burned to the ground in 1887.

But despite the second hotel's long occupancy of the site, few artifacts from it were found, perhaps because the area being excavated was used as a carriageway or because the site was well-cleaned after the fire. More items were found from the lower excavation levels associated with the earlier hotel, which operated from about 1808 to 1822, when it burned. That establishment was known as the Rising Sun Hotel, and the results are "looking impressively like a bordello," Dawdy said, citing the suggestive combination of broken pieces from "tons of liquor bottles" and several rouge pots. Dawdy said local historians generally have claimed that the earliest formal bordellos in New Orleans did not open until the Civil War, a view that let them push the blame for the development on occupying Union troops. It was assumed the Rising Sun Hotel had been a regular hostelry.

But in view of what the excavation uncovered, Dawdy finds a January 1821 ad for the hotel in the Louisiana Gazette of considerable interest. The ad says the hotel's new owners will "maintain the character of giving the best entertainment, which this house has enjoyed for twenty years past." It goes on: "Gentlemen may here rely upon finding attentive Servants. The bar will be supplied with genuine good Liquors; and at the Table, the fare will be of the best the market or the season will afford."

Although the ad does not prove that anything illicit was happening at the Rising Sun, it suggests it was a place where men went for a good time. Whether the hotel also lent its name to the song is another matter. "The House of the Rising Sun," an old folk song best known through Eric Burdon and The Animals hit 1964 version, was first written on paper in the 1930s by pioneering folk song collector Alan Lomax. He said he learned it from a "yellow-headed miner's daughter" in Kentucky.

The melody may go back to 17th century England. Who penned the lyrics is unknown, as well as what inspired them and whether the "house" in question was a brothel, gambling hall, prison or something else.

The Lomax version put the words in the mouth of a woman: "There is a house in New Orleans they call the Rising Sun. It's been the ruin of many a poor girl, and me, O God, for one." The Animals version changed "girl" to "boy." Buggy drivers, public relaions officials and others, operating on skimpy evidence at best, have identified at least two other French Quarter addresses, 616 Ursulines St. and 826-30 St. Louis St., as the site of a brothel known as the Rising Sun.

Local researcher Pamela Arceneaux, who has spent years investigating the history of prostitution in New Orleans, said she has never found a reference to a bordello known as the House of the Rising Sun. Whether Dawdy's findings will provide such evidence remains to be seen.

Below the materials from the two hotels, the diggers found items from the early 18th century, when the excavation site apparently was for many years a garden behind a house on Chartres Street. There are pieces of French faience (faience n.f. chinaware n.) and Natchez Indian pottery, and Dawdy plans further analysis to try to learn whether the seeds and pollen recovered were from native or imported French plants.

Below the garden were several inches of "sterile soil," containing no artifacts, presumably from years before the founding of New Orleans in 1718. But the excavators dug a little deeper and unexpectedly found pieces of prehistoric Indian pottery, "very plain everyday ware," dating from between 1200 and 1700, in two of the seven excavation spots. Although the presence of pottery does not prove there was a long-term Indian settlement on the site, Dawdy said she thinks it is good evidence of "sustained occupation." Historians have known there was an Indian village near Bayou St. John, but she said there has been no evidence until now that Indians had lived on the same spot that Bienville chose to establish a European town. If enough organic material is recovered with the pottery, Dawdy said, she can use carbon-14 testing to date the Indians' presence at the site more accurately.

Dawdy, who is writing a book on French colonial New Orleans and formerly was director of UNO's New Orleans archaeology program, has been working in the city on and off since 1994. She will spend at least a year analyzing the finds from the Conti Street site, she said. Although it would have been nice to have enough time and workers to dig up the entire floor of the old garage, not just a few small sections of it, Dawdy said she is "very satisfied with the sampling," especially with the 18th century and earlier finds.

After she has had time to study the material, she said, she probably will write a report for the Historic New Orleans Collection, give a public talk and publish one or more scholarly articles.

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