During Memphis Heritage's "Great Neighborhoods under Great Neighborhoods" lecture last week, an audience member asks if there are really tunnels underneath the city. "I heard they found one when they did the [Madison Avenue trolley line]," the man says.
Guy Weaver, urban archaeologist and speaker for the evening, quickly rebuts the rumor. "There are tunnels underneath downtown," he says. "They're called sewers."
Tunnels and sewers notwithstanding, Memphis' seamy underbelly does have its secrets. And it's often Weaver & Associates that uncovers them -- literally.
By law, construction projects that use federal money have to include an archaeological survey. Most Memphians have heard about artifacts Weaver recovered while working at the FedExForum site: bottles, jewelry, pistols, privies, a pistol in a privy. But he has also excavated other locations around the area, including the site where AutoZone headquarters now sits. At that site, they found a live cannon ball and a well filled with the personal belongings of a family that died during the yellow fever epidemic.
"One of the earliest digs we did in downtown was around the Falls Building," says Weaver. "We found a well that was chock-full of bottles and kitchen debris from an old tavern that was located on the top of the bluff in the early 19th century. We also found a bag of kitten bones and a beautiful gold tin. That well was found beneath the basement of a modern building. It just goes to show that in the basements of downtown buildings, there's the possibility for all kinds of things: wells, graves, and other archaeological remains that most people wouldn't think were there."
One such site is the northeast corner of Main and G.E. Patterson. Today it's retail, but in 1866, it was a cemetery.
"Usually, when they moved cemeteries, they would just take the headstones away and say a prayer," says Weaver.
It's interesting how buildings and use can change a landscape and a city. Take the old Baptist Hospital. It loomed over Union for years and its implosion was a cultural milestone, but as the four-story pile of rubble is cleared and a research park rises from the dust, Baptist will fade in our minds. Just like that cemetery on South Main did. I can barely remember what was at Union and Belvedere before construction started on that new shopping center.
Once upon a time, Beale Street was the convergence of two cities -- Memphis and South Memphis -- both of which had streets running perpendicular and parallel to the river. Beale was the "shatter zone," the area between the two where the grids broke down, resulting in crooked streets, odd-shaped buildings, and a well of creativity.
"Beale Street developed as an important center for African Americans and where there was a crossover between different musical styles. It's not a historical accident," Weaver says. "If you walk down Beale from Main, you'll notice that you're going from high to low ground. ... Beale was a boundary between downtown and the newly arrived population of African Americans. It was an ethnic boundary as well as a shatter zone of the grids. It was the boundary between rich and poor; it was a boundary between white and black. All these things added up to make Beale Street what it was."
Weaver often uncovers artifacts of what he calls "ancient evils" -- racism, slavery, etc. At the Forum site, archaeologists found a plate with the character Jim Crow on it. Before it was associated with segregation, Jim Crow was related to minstrel shows, and the plate is one of Weaver's favorite artifacts because it's hard for archaeologists to dig up music.
"It's also an alphabet plate, so it was for children," says Weaver. "In one sense, it's an example of how material culture can be used to perpetuate ideas about race and ethnicity.
"Written history is one form of access to the past, but histories are often written by biased individuals, usually white males. Archaeology is another way to interpret the past and produce evidence that can be used to test and compare our written histories."
Yellow fever is also on Weaver's list of "ancient evils." But, like Beale Street, it's another thing that defined the city -- perhaps even to this day. Weaver surmises that the epidemic is one of the reasons Memphis became a medical center.
"We can't escape our past," says Weaver. "It is woven into our collective subconscious. Sometimes you can put your finger on events and ideas that exist in our community today and that have their roots in an earlier time."
Is the demolition of Baptist and the construction of a research park the result of something that happened in the 1870s? And what events are happening today that are shaping our future? I don't know, but there will be plenty of artifacts for future archaeologists to sort through.
"We're a disposable society," says Weaver. "Who knows what they'll find ... and how they'll interpret it?"