Looking Back at an Archeology Dig at Gibson Guitar 

To celebrate the Flyer’s 25th year, we’ll be using this space each week to look back on stories from past issues

In 1997, the Hard Rock Café came to Memphis, the Tennessee Oilers pro football team played their only season at the Liberty Bowl, and a new guitar plant was about to open downtown.

But before bulldozers could move the earth at the future site of Gibson Guitar, archeologists with tiny trowels and picks did some preliminary digging. What they found offered some interesting insight into Beale Street's historic red-light district.

Because federal funds were being used in the development of the property, regulations required that archaeologists assess whether the construction would have any impact on the area's cultural deposits and historic artifacts. Flyer reporter Elizabeth Lemond had the story:

"'Before we ever start digging, we do a literature and records search where we check archival records for events, people, and buildings that were on the site,' explains archaeologist Guy Weaver, field director and principal investigator for the Gibson site.

click to enlarge Gibson Guitar factory - CHRIS SHAW
  • Chris Shaw
  • Gibson Guitar factory

"'If you look at these old insurance maps from 1907, there are all these shacks marked 'F.B.' for 'female boarding.' That's a code name for brothels,' says Weaver. "There were just lines of brothels."

"Weaver spent the past few weeks in a trench six-feet-deep looking for what turn-of-the-century prostitutes may have left behind — clues about their lifestyle. 'We're looking at how these men and women associated with this business lived, what kinds of conditions they were working in, and what kind of material possessions they had,' he explains.

"For Weaver and his colleagues of Brockington and Associates, Inc., unearthing artifacts — bottles, ceramics, animal bones — is just a first step. Once an object is recovered, it must be cleaned, cataloged, and analyzed in the Brockington office downtown.

"'Basically, we separate everything into different artifact classes, and catalog them — but first we have to wash them,' says lab director Alison Helmes, sifting through dirty clumps of soil like a miner panning for gold.

"'What we're looking for,' explains Weaver, 'is a statistical analysis of many different bones. Were these prostitutes eating expensive foods? Were they expressing status through the food they were eating?'

"By exploring the deposits in about 20 trenches, Weaver and his colleagues are attempting to determine whether the remaining artifacts have any historical importance on a scale that would merit the preservation or excavation of the area. The archaeologists then determine if the site can be safely built over or sealed without disturbing the deposits below or whether it must be excavated further before construction can begin. According to Weaver, this decision will be made in a few weeks; at present, not enough information has been gathered to assess the importance of the remains.

"Some intriguing developments have taken place at the site in the past week.

"'What basically has happened,' says archaeologist Brian Collins, 'is that they hit some intact deposits. We think it might be the base of a privy. They also have found some brick building foundations, but we're not sure when those date from yet.'"


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