By Leah Jones, Features Editor
Stories are often told in words, but University of Missouri-St. Louis anthropology students and alumni know that objects can tell stories too. The stories that objects tell are not always clear though. What does it mean when all of the crucifixes are broken off the rosaries that were left with the bodies in a specific cemetery?
These are the types of questions that UMSL anthropology alumni Joe Harl, Meredith Hawkins Trautt, Corri Mader-Twillmann, Courtney Hayden, and Corey Fitzpatrick ask themselves about objects that they find on archaeological digs.
Mader-Twillmann, Hayden, and Fitzpatrick are all recent graduates who are currently working on a federally-funded Cultural Resource Management project with The Archaeological Research Center of St. Louis Incorporated (ARC). ARC is excavating historic sites in North St. Louis before the construction of the new $1.6 billion National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency facility.
Harl co-owns ARC with Janet Kneller and Robin Machiran. Harl, also an UMSL anthropology graduate, began working with the company when it was a contract program with UMSL in 1978, but UMSL dropped the program in 1994. “By that time I was in charge of it,” Harl said. “So…we just took everybody that we had there and started a private company.” Preservation laws stipulate that archaeological excavations be done on federal projects, which is how ARC gets most of their jobs.
The entire NGA project will cover 99 acres. ARC pored over historical records to select 25 blocks to excavate. “We did an extensive archival review. We looked at census records, deeds records and… fire insurance maps,” Harl said. “We’re trying to get a real mixture of people. We’re trying to get flats versus houses… businesses, like this grocery store… drug stores…[and] three schools.”
Mader-Twillmann, who graduated in May with her Bachelor’s in Anthropology and an Archaeological Field Certificate, started working on the project in June. She said that she heard about the job opening from Dr. Patti Wright, Associate Professor of Anthropology at UMSL. “We’re finding a lot of privies, water closets, cisterns, and building foundations,” Mader-Twillmann said. “From those we are recovering bottles, ceramics, animal bones, and other interesting items such as glass and ceramic marbles and ceramic dolls…The [item] that I am most fond of is a brick that had a sheet of paper in the mortar. I was able to clean it off and it was revealed to be an old grammar lesson.”
Hayden, who also graduated this past May, learned about the position from Mader-Twillmann and has been working on the project for a few weeks. “[We found] random bits of metal. So that’s kind of a fun mystery. We [also found] a couple horseshoes, [and] a couple of actual intact bottles with actual labels on them,” she said.
One of the excavation sites at the corner of 22nd and Montgomery Street, is an old house that Harl estimated was built in the early to mid-1800s. The foundation featured upright cedar posts, which indicated to Harl that it had been a French-style house.
“It’s kind of sort of French, kind of sort of not. It’s a very weird house,” said Hawkins Trautt, the Field Director for ARC. “Nothing else about it is really very French… It’s kind of an odd mixture between [a] French and American type of building, so we don’t really know what’s happening.”
Though the houses are interesting, the group looks for privies and outhouses, since that is where many people threw out their garbage before the city collected waste. However, Harl said that they were finding more objects in cisterns, which collected rainwater for household chores. The group has also excavated wells that were up to 30 feet deep. “It’s amazing,” Harl said. “They just used shovels and picks…to dig down that deep in that narrow hole, line it with loose stones and then, not kill themselves getting in and out of those things.”
Inside the house, the team has found objects from the early 1900s, including some World’s Fair items. Mader-Twillmann cleaned bottles and deciphered labels found at the site. “’Keep the hair like you like it’ is what I can make out,” she said as she squinted at a bottle with a faded label. She also helped clean an iconic Brook’s Catsup bottle, made in Collinsville, Illinois. Mader-Twillmann can date bottles without labels based on the lips and seams of the bottles.
Harl stressed that the items were only a part of the story though. The objects reflect the quotidian realities of the people that used them. “We can… see what people were actually doing [in] day-to-day life and what they preferred and what they didn’t prefer. And that gives us a better understanding of human beings and people. [It] really it helps us understand ourselves because really everybody, all of our ideas and likes and wants are based on our past. So studying that, we’re understanding ourselves as well,” Harl said. “I think the people are a lot more exciting story…than the object.”
Harl’s interest in the people behind the objects is not new. After an uncle gave him an arrow head as a child, Harl says he remembers lying in bed contemplating the arrowhead. He said, “I was looking at all the cracks and cervices in it and I was wondering… Who held this last? What did they think of? What did they do?… And to realize that somebody actually touched that thousands of years ago… Did this guy’s… father teach him how to make this? It really got me hooked.”
Mader-Twillmann said that she got hooked on anthropology after she realized that it combined her interests in psychology and history. Hayden developed her love of the field by attending archaeological digs in England while she studied at one of Webster University’s study abroad programs.
Hawkins Trautt got hooked on anthropology after she took a course about cemeteries at UMSL. One of the most exciting human stories for Hawkins Trautt was when she worked on a site that was to become an off-ramp for Interstate 64. “As we were doing the historical research, I came across a… William and Mary Hawkins and their two kids… I did a little more research and it turns out they were… my four times great grandparents,” she said.
Though ARC loves human stories, Harl said that they sometimes come across the remains of those people too. While federally-funded projects such as the NGA project must legally be excavated, Missouri is one of the few states that does not have a state law mandating excavation for state-funded projects. Harl said that developers profit from the destruction of many sites in this way.
This means that if a state-funded project goes into an old cemetery site, that site may not be excavated and bodies may not be moved. “What we’ve found [is that] even though bodies are supposed to be moved when they close a graveyard down, not all of the bodies are moved. All of the headstones are moved, but all the bodies are left behind….What does that say about us that we don’t respect the dead enough to have them removed and moved to a new location and to just dig them up?”
This was the case for the site of the police department on Jefferson Avenue according to Harl, which used to be the main burial district for St. Louis. “When we investigated a portion of it, it turned out that no body had been removed,” Harl said. He added that the Chouteaus and the Lacledes were buried there, though the burial site had a diverse group of people, including African-Americans and Native Americans.
Though the bodies had not been removed, the crucifixes from the rosaries had been removed. “[The crucifixes] could have been taken and handed to nearest [family] member before they closed the casket,” Harl said. “Or it could have been something more sinister where the sextons were ripping it off to sell to buy some extra bottles of rum.”
Though many stories (and bodies) are lost in policy, UMSL anthropology alumni and students like Harl, Hawkins Trautt, Mader-Twillmann, Hayden, and Fitzpatrick do what they can to preserve those stories.
To find out more about their stories and others, visit arc-stl.com/index.html.
To find out more about the story of the Brook’s Catsup Bottle, visit catsupbottle.com/.