Hey Xplorers! Thanks for joining us for another edition of Dig Deeper. In this very special post (We hope the first of many like it!), we’re bringing you some insight into one of our actual projects — the mitigation of the Saint Amelia Plantation site.
We’ll get deeper into it in a minute, but when we say “mitigation,” we want you to think BIG. Mitigations are HUGE projects that require a lot of people to recover a lot of artifacts. It’s difficult to overstate how incredible these projects are, and we’ve been privileged to perform about 20 of them.
Recently, we’ve performed four separate mitigations in Louisiana. Each one is unique, and each has led to some fascinating findings! We’re grateful to have been a part of each and to have participated in the recovery and preservation of so many historical and cultural resources. That’s why we’re bringing you this new series! Over the next few months, we’ll be walking you through each of our four Louisiana mitigations to give you a little more insight into what a massive archaeological project looks like.
Today, we’re focusing on the Saint Amelia Plantation. Our archaeologists Paul Jackson and Kevin Rolph — along with their amazing field crew — completed the work on this project, and we couldn’t be more proud of the incredible work they did. Through this process, we discovered the location of the main house on the plantation, which was in use as early as 1790! We recovered more than 20,000 artifacts and learned a lot about the history of the area. Our findings were fascinating, and we’re so excited to share them with you! Are you ready? Let’s dig deeper!
But First, a Little Bit of Background…
As usual, it’s important to give a little bit of background explanation about how our projects work. When we begin a project, we usually start by doing some basic research on a project area. We’ll check through records and databases to see if any CRM firms like TerraX have done any surveys at the location, and we’ll be sure to let the client know if there are any National Register of Historic Places-registered sites within the project limits. From there, we can determine if more work will be necessary to protect any cultural resources.
If we decide to do more work, we’ll start with a Phase I survey, which will consist of some basic shovel testing and visual inspections. If we decide that more work will be necessary to determine the site’s NRHP eligibility, we’ll move on to a Phase II survey with a little more detailed work. Finally, if the client informs us that their project cannot avoid the site altogether, we’ll do what’s called a Phase III archaeological excavation, or a mitigation, to recover the maximum information possible before the site is too heavily disturbed. That’s why they’re called “mitigations” — because we’re mitigating the effects of a construction project.
Okay, armed with a little more of the technical information, we think we’re ready to move on into the Saint Amelia Plantation mitigation, don’t you?
… And a Little Bit of Historical Information
A brief glance into the history of the Saint Amelia plantation shows that even though land ownership and management in the Antebellum south has often been viewed as men's work,' four individual women — Marie Bergeron (1815-1816), Cephalie Taney (1839-1848), Marie Weber (Ory) (1848-1854/6), and Amelia Webre (1872-1878) — ran and managed the plantation operations and enslaved people. Women's roles in successfully managing a plantation in what has long been understood as a male-dominated industry is not as unique as one might think. We are excited that studying St. Amelia may help us gain a better understanding of these four women's roles there, which may aid in the new understanding of wives and daughters taking over the plantation's business management when needed. We are so excited to learn more about a historic property where women played such a key role.
Additionally, the main house for the St. Amelia plantation was likely built between 1790 to 1830, based on the French-Creole style and federal ornamentation. Over time, cultivation of the land and the use of the house would have changed with ownership until it was ultimately abandoned sometime before the 1970s. Our investigations illustrate that the house went through constant renovations and additions for at least a century. Unfortunately, while we are confident that there were structures on the property that were used to house enslaved laborers, we were unable to positively identify such structures. However, the lack of those structures speaks volumes in and of itself! The absence is likely due to the use of less than desirable materials — meaning that they were constructed cheaply.
Before we get into the wide variety of SUPER cool artifacts we found at the site, let’s talk a little bit about the process. Mitigations take a *lot* of time and effort from a *lot* of people, and we want to make sure they get the credit they deserve!
Our mitigation at the St. Amelia Plantation site began in January of 2020. Unfortunately, however, because the water level of the Mississippi River rose too high, we had to suspend our operations.. Thankfully, we were able to safely resume work in July of the same year, and we finally wrapped up in October. That’s right — we were outside digging for over three months.
The project was led by our fearless leader and Principal Investigator, Paul, but he couldn’t do all that work alone! In total, it took a crew of 20 to fully excavate the site. That crew included field director Abigail Peeples, site photographer Bud Rovetto, aerial drone photographers Kay McKenna and Annabelle Koeber, and 16 other field technicians to complete the work.
And it doesn’t end there! No project can be fully complete without laboratory analysis, and for that we have our incredible lab director Raychel Durdin and her assistants Katie Seeber and Gracie Engle to thank. In addition, Steven Filoromo served as a historic archaeologist, and Emma Jackson Pepperman and Margaret Schultz worked on the project as historians. Yup, it takes a lot of people to complete a project this massive!
All totaled, our team excavated 6.8 acres. They uncovered 59 features of the former plantation, including brick foundation piers, two fireplace foundations, four foundation walls, and more. Altogether, we uncovered the full footprint of the original house! We also uncovered 23, 050 artifacts. (Again, shout out to the lab crew for analyzing and organizing that many items!) These included materials from the actual architecture like brick fragments and nails, kitchen items like glassware and ceramics, and even toys like marbles — but we’ll tell you more about those next week!
The final report was 490 pages long and includes dozens of maps and photographs created and compiled by our incredible GIS specialists and photographers. This project was truly a team effort — that’s why we’re so grateful to have the best team in the business!
Just a Few of Our Findings
Site 16SJ80 was the main house for the Saint Amelia Plantation and was in use from 1790 to 2018 in some capacity in St. James Parish, Louisiana. TerraX performed both Phase II archaeological testing and a Phase III mitigation at the site.
One of the main research goals we kept at the front of our minds was the identification of plantation structures within the project area. Thankfully, we had a map of the Mississippi River that was created in 1878 that shows a total of 17 structures within the boundary of the site. These included the main house, buildings related to farm work, and even some assumed to be housing structures used for enslaved peoples. By uncovering these sites, we hoped to learn more about the people who lived and worked on this land, and we attempted to identify cultural features in relation to these structures.
Unfortunately, all intact features associated with the smaller structures had been destroyed. After all, the land continued to be an active agricultural site until 2019, and during that time, most buildings were torn down or otherwise moved to make way for farming work. Fortunately, however, one very special exception: the main plantation house.
Because it was the only structure of which we could find remains, the main house became the focus of the excavation. According to our brilliant Architectural Historians, the house had a French-Creole design with federal-style ornamentation. The French-Creole style was popular from 1732 to 1911, and the federal style was prominent from 1790 to 1938. The architectural features uncovered during the excavation included 48 foundation pillars, two cisterns, and a fireplace foundation.
As we mentioned before, we also recovered over 20,000 artifacts during the excavation! Of that 20,000, 8,500 of the artifacts — that’s 37 percent — were of architectural material such as brick, glass, and nails. Within that 37 percent, Window glass represents 15 percent of architectural material collected. Our laboratory staff noticed and recorded the varying thickness of the glass, which in itself illustrates use and replacement over time. They researched the estimated production dates for the glass we found, and discovered that, on average, most of it was produced between 1845 and 1937. They also divided the nails that were recovered into two categories that align with production popularity: cut nails produced from 1800 to 1914 and wire nails from 1860 to present, again showing that the house was changed, repaired, and improved over time.
Faunal (animal related) and kitchen items represent another large fraction of artifacts recovered from the site, 28 percent and 18 percent, respectively. Marine shells make up 90 percent of the faunal collection, and it’s worth saying that some shells may have been used for construction, not consumption. The rest of the faunal collection is full of medium-sized mammals and fish, some of which were burnt or had cut marks. The kitchen materials, like the construction material, provides a glimpse into the lives of the people who lived there, with glassware dating from 1790 to 1982 and ceramic material dating from 1740 to 2000. (In case you’re wondering, our laboratory techs look at things like designs/colors/patterns, maker’s marks, methods of manufacturing, embossing, and more to find out when objects were made! But we’ll talk more about that in our coming artifacts series, so stay tuned for that!)
Now, don’t get us wrong — all that stuff is super cool, but some of our favorites were the many toys and household items we found! We uncovered jewelry fragments, buttons, pipe fragments, and over a dozen marbles. We found glass from medicine bottles and cosmetics and pieces of porcelain dolls. Through these items, we got to peek into the lives of the people who lived at St. Amelia. We learned about the luxuries they enjoyed from the jewelry and pipes and about the entertainment the children enjoyed from the toys. We gained a better understanding of how the people who came before us lived — and that’s what our work is really all about.
What Questions Do You Have?
And there you have it! That’s just one example of a mitigation, and we were so pleased to be part of it. We learned so much from our excavation of the Saint Amelia plantation site, and we’re hopeful that future researchers and scholars will be able to learn from all of the artifacts we recovered.
Do you have any questions about this or any other mitigation? Please let us know! You can find us on Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn. And be sure to look out for more posts about our mitigations in the future!
Until next time, keep learning!
— The TerraX Team