According to the U.S. National Historic Preservation Act, any time a federal agency does something that could affect historic resources, it must take into account the effects of those actions. In the case of archaeology, this typically means documenting sites and artifacts before they are disturbed or destroyed.
Many federal agencies took part in the redevelopment of the Guste Homes, a public housing project located in the New Orleans Central City neighborhood. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) administered the project through the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) because the federal government owns the land. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided some of the funds for the redevelopment. Two local archaeological firms, R.C. Goodwin and Associates and Earth Search, Inc., conducted tests to see the history preserved in the blocks where Guste Homes once stood. These archaeological firms targeted specific areas for excavation that had the most potential to tell us things about the history of the Melpomene neighborhood that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to know.
Before HANO completed the construction of the Guste Homes development in 1964, the Melpomene neighborhood it replaced looked much like the rest of the Central City area, with densely packed houses, corner stores, and other small businesses. When HANO demolished those buildings to make way for the Guste project buildings, old building foundations and footings remained below ground. Most importantly for archaeologists, pits that had previously been dug into the ground, like wells and old outhouse pits, were covered over. Before regular trash pick-up, an abandoned hole in the ground provided a convenient place to get rid of household refuse, like broken dishes, bottles, food remains, and all sorts of small everyday items. These holes become like time capsules, which, once excavated by archaeologists, potentially tell about the everyday lives of the people who once lived in the area.
In archaeology, as you dig downwards, you go back in time: the things that are on top are the newest and the ones that are more deeply buried are older. Archaeologists (and geologists) call this “the law of stratigraphic superposition.” In this tour, we will go back in time starting in 1964, when the Guste Homes opened, and focus on a few families who lived in the area over the previous hundred years.
From a combination of documentary sources and maps, we can trace the development of the Melpomene neighborhood in some detail over this period. Some of those who lived in the area left more traces than others in documents, but all of those discussed left material remains, or artifacts, recovered through archaeology. These artifacts allow us to get glimpses of the daily lives of the city’s residents in a way that other historical documents can’t.