Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time. Thomas Merton

Monday, March 1, 2010

Well Digging

Here is an old newspaper article that my son scanned for me. If you'd like to read the article, just click on the photo.

This article ran in the Memphis Commercial Appeal in the spring of 1985 when I was a graduate student in archaeology at the University of Memphis (Memphis State University, MSU, back when I was there). The project was being conducted in conjunction with a renovation of the Falls Building and Gerber Annex on Front Street. The project was very low budget and almost all of us worked as volunteers. Sometimes some of us would work on the project all day and others were able to go downtown and work for a few hours between classes. A 19th-century brick-lined well found on the north side of the building under the Gerber Annex portion of the renovation project was the object of all our attention. A saloon had also been located nearby and it's owner probably used the water from the well. Eventually the well became a trash dump and was filled in at some point when it was no longer useful as a source of water. The firm that was financing the renovation and the archaeological project hoped that we would be able to recover "museum quality" artifacts from the well in order to display them in the lobby of the Falls Building in a permanent exhibit documenting the history of the building once the remodeling was done.

We found many interesting objects that had been thrown down the well during the years before it was filled in. We had no idea how deep the well might be, but eventually the excavation ran to a depth of 37 feet (or about 12 meters) before hitting subsoil. A few of the things we pulled up out of the long-forgotten well included both broken and whole wine and beer bottles, some with corks still intact and alcoholic contents inside; fragments of various types of ceramics typical of a saloon and dining establishment (plates, bowls, other fragments of tableware, crockery, a basin and ewer/pitcher); a few coins; lots of fruit seeds--peach pits, grape seeds, watermelon seeds; a small wooden barrel; bits of newspapers from the 1800's; and a burlap bag containing the bones of a cat that had been thrown into the well to drown. It was an interesting, wet, and nasty project.

We had to water screen every bucketful of material that was hauled out of the well. Needless to say, with all the construction going on and the well being located in the huge foundation pit excavated for the renovation, there was plenty of mud and the combination of our water screening and the construction excavation resulted in very muddy archaeologists--not really out of the ordinary for us guys, but many of the usual downtown Memphis business folk who would stop by to watch seemed entertained by our muddy appearance. As the days passed, the work got much dirtier--and our appearance more humorous.

It seemed that we struck oil at what turned out to be about halfway down the well. The water that we were hauling up in the buckets began to take on an oily look that got worse the deeper we went. Eventually, artifacts and archaeologists alike were covered in black, oily goo. Memphis underwent several bouts of yellow fever in the 1800's: 1828, 1855, 1867, and the worst in the 1870s. Apparently, oil was poured down the well during at least one of the epidemics to try to prevent mosquitoes, carriers of the disease, from breeding in the water. I do not know if we were ever able to find out when or how many times this might have been done, but it would certainly render the water undrinkable. The resulting bog-like environment allowed excellent preservation of organic material. Wood, fabric, newspaper, bones (not just those of the poor drowned cat, but chicken, pork, and other meat products that might have been served at the saloon), and the many different kinds of seeds were all in excellent condition. However, it made made water screening a really messy process. As artifacts were placed on the screens and hosed off, the droplets of overspray were not just muddy and wet, but black and oily as well. We had a few rainsuits to share to try to stay as clean and dry as possible, especially on those days when we had to go back to campus for classes, but it didn't help much.

Our efforts didn't yield much in the way of "museum quality" artifacts. After all these years, with no copy of the site report, I do not remember if we ever figured out when the well was originally dug or filled in, nor do I remember much about the dates of any of the artifacts recovered other than their being 19th century. I do remember one of the bits of newspaper from the very lowest levels of the well had a partial date of June (??) [I've forgotten the exact day, but it seems like it was sometime mid-month], 182(?)--the last digit of the year was missing. I seem to recall that our principle investigator was able to trace the date through the newspaper archives to 1823 or 1824, which would predate the first yellow fever epidemic and mean that there was a good likelihood that the well was constructed before the early 1820's newspaper was printed. Of course, it is possible that some of the newspaper could have been tossed in later as trash from years past after a good house cleaning or that perhaps it was old newspaper which was discarded after having been used to wrap a object. Maybe the object itself was thrown in, too. Any artifacts that were more recent than the 1820-something date would tell us that the well was not filled in until sometime after the years of their manufacture.

One of these days on a trip to Memphis, maybe I'll make time to visit the Falls Building to see if the exhibit is still in the lobby and see what conclusions were finally reached. In the meantime, I think of hot summer evenings of an older time in Memphis with folks wandering past the well, spitting their watermelon seeds, peach pits, and grape seeds in (probably even while it was a water source), of both local folks and travelers enjoying food, spirits, and tales at the saloon, and an old Mother Goose rhyme about unfortunate cat.

Ding dong bell
Pussy's in the well
Who put her in?
Little Johnny Green
Who pulled her out?
Little Tommy Stout
What a naughty boy was that
Try to drown poor Pussycat,
Who ne'er did him any harm
But killed all the mice
In the farmer's barn!


  1. How cool would it be if it was all oil!!That looks like fun. My kids also like to dig!!

  2. Lol! We joked about how much the anthro department could benefit from "our" discovery of oil--a non-reality at best, since it wasn't the university's property. Oh, well.

    Glad to hear about your young diggers. There are a lot of good children's books on archaeology that they might get at the library (if they haven't already looked into them) and good stuff on the internet.

  3. What an interesting find! Always a miracle of sorts to uncover artifacts still in tact from that long ago...makes you wonder how things end up in weird places too.

  4. I really enjoyed this Melissa. A fascinating but very dirty job. I feel sorry for the poor kitty though. What an unpleasant death. I hope the perpetrator dropped dead with yellow fever...haha. I always wanted to train as an archaeologist but my parents thought nursing a more useful and ladylike occupation.