Historic Heap

While building a courthouse annex this October in St. Francisville, La., contractors discovered a 19th century trash heap buried on the site. Local archaeologists believe the pile of bottles, animal bones, dishes, window glass and other items are the discards from the Royal Hotel, which was located on the property in the mid 1800s.

It seems an open cellar that was detached from the hotel was filled with trash — and a few treasures, including bone-handle tableware and a woman's folding fan. The cellar then was capped off with bricks and clay, so many of the artifacts have been well-preserved — which is unusual because items such as bone and iron artifacts normally do not survive well in Louisiana soil. Rob Mann, a Southeastern regional archaeologist, headed a two-week excavation and explains that before the onset of modern trash removal in the 20th century, filling old cellars, wells, cisterns and privies was a common practice. “After the cellar had outlived its usefulness, it was essentially just a large hole in the ground and hence a convenient place to dump refuse,” Mann says.

The archaeological team has excavated only the portion of the cellar that would have been destroyed in the construction of the new courthouse annex — approximately one-third of the 17 foot by 11.5 foot cellar. Analysis has just begun, but the team is estimating that there are thousands of artifacts in the excavated material.

The exposed limits of the cellar were defined by archaeologists, who discovered them a trench during construction activity, then drew maps and photographed findings. Staff at the Museum of Natural Science at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, now are washing and identifying artifacts. Once each item has been recorded and analyzed, the team will create a final report. The entire process could take six months or more.

According to Mann, the site is important because it provides information on a specific time frame — 1830 and 1880 — and because “it represents the refuse of a commercial rather than domestic context. It also provides a unique glimpse into the daily operation of a 19th-century hotel in Southeast Louisiana.”

The West Feliciana Parish Police Jury, the owner of the excavated property, will receive the artifacts once the analysis process is complete. However, many involved are hoping that a portion of the artifacts will be permanently displayed at the new courthouse once it is complete.