The University of Alabama

Excavation Reveals Items from UA’s Early History

By Cresandra Smothers

John Lieb (above), cultural resources assistant, and other members of the research team have discovered various pre-Civil War artifacts at excavation sites near Gorgas Library.

John Lieb (above), cultural resources assistant, and other members of the research team have discovered various pre-Civil War artifacts at excavation sites near Gorgas Library.

What began as a three-week excavation in the parking lot behind Gorgas Library, may become much more thanks to the work of Dr. Robert Clouse, executive director of UA’s Office of Archaeological Research.

“I originally estimated that the initial work would take about three weeks. We began excavations on May 15 and finished on June 1 – two weeks and four days,” said Clouse.

During that time period, three 5-by-20-foot holes – one to the east of Gorgas Library and two west of Gorgas – were dug. The excavation in the parking lot revealed stone steps that led to what was once the cellar of Jefferson Hall. The other two excavation trenches were where Washington Hall once stood. Both structures were built in 1831 and were burned by federal troops during the Civil War in 1865.

Although the two excavations west of Gorgas (in Washington Hall) did not unearth many artifacts, the Jefferson site did.

Clouse and his team uncovered several pre-Civil War artifacts including part of an iron bed, a chamber pot, belt buckles, smoking pipes, buttons, a toothbrush and square-cut nails. “In the artifact category we have found most of two coffee cups, the majority of a mixing bowl, iron strap hinges, other as yet unidentified metal fragments, cloth fragments, and more clothing buttons. There are also two foundation walls of unknown function.”

The artifacts will be catalogued by the University and many of them will be exhibited at the Alabama Museum of Natural History in Smith Hall.

dig site“The significance of the discoveries is considerable,” said Clouse. “Were this project part of the normal environmental review process the archaeological remains of these two structures would undoubtedly meet the criteria for eligibility to the National Register of Historic Places. But beyond that criteria, it is virtually the only information that we have about the structures, and to an extent, about the buildings’ occupants. Historic documents do not tell us much beyond the dimensions and construction materials. Historic documents are also prone to errors of commission and omission. The archaeological findings are a tangible link to the history of the University unlike any other source of data. The structural remains are a testament to the planners and builders of this University and the care and craftsmanship through which the initial design of the University took shape.”

Clouse was scheduled to submit a proposal for additional excavations to Provost Judy Bonner this month. He said unexpected discoveries of additional foundation walls during the last week of excavations created a need to re-evaluate the extent and location for additional testing.

“Beyond the knowledge we can gain about the early occupants of the University, it is important to identify the parameters of the early historic features of the University to protect them from future construction disturbances.”

The location of the historic sites will be recorded for future planning purposes.