Lamar Terrace Archaelogical Project

Archaeological Excavations

Functionally, the Lamar Terrace Site deposit represents a neighborhood-level dump that formed largely through informal trash and rubbish disposal, and it is interpreted as containing artifacts from multiple domestic and a few local commercial sources. The lower portions of the archaeological deposit at the Lamar Terrace site was laid down during the 1870s, but midden accumulation was initially slow, probably due a low neighborhood population, as well as due to the disruptions of the yellow fever epidemics. Deposition rates and artifact density increased dramatically ca. 1890, and much of the deposit is associated with one of the most dynamic periods of social and technological change in our nation’s history: the Progressive Era (1890-1913). Deposition continued during the succeeding Great War and Jazz Age (1914-1928), and the site was ultimately sealed ca. 1939 by the construction of Lamar Terrace housing project. However, after ca. 1920, dumping at the site was more episodic, and 1930s diagnostics are essentially absent. This is possibly an effect of the opening of the Veterans Administration Hospital No. 88, immediately to the west of the site/dump; dumping was greatly attenuated at the site for sanitary reasons.

Interpreting the archaeological record of this forgotten dump, “The Treasure of the Terrace,” offers an opportunity to explore the effects that the modernization of the Progressive Era had on a neighborhood. The discussion below characterizes the archaeological record of the site in terms of the excavations, overall artifact patterns and chronology.

Excavations Data recovery excavations were conducted at the Lamar Terrace site from December 9, 2005, to January 20, 2006, by a ten-person crew. Fieldwork began with the mechanized stripping of the ca. 1939 fill dirt that capped the significant deposit. Initially, a cross-shaped pattern of two arms just over 26 m long by 2 m wide was mechanically stripped, and 2-x-2 m (6.56-x-6.56 ft.) excavation units were stringed off. The units were excavated in 10 cm levels. As the cultural deposit was deep, the excavation level sizes were windowed down as the units got progressively deeper. The cultural deposit was eventually found to rest on sterile sediments (in most cases gleyed) that were reached in the eight most deeply excavated units.

The Lamar Terrace site is a historic trash dump that formed on two undeveloped lots within the Graham Subdivision. In broadest terms, the site stratigraphy is quite simple; there are three major horizons. The surface horizon consists of 0.5-1.0 m of ca. 1939 fill dirt primarily composed of the local silty clay loess. The surface horizon was near sterile, and was mechanically stripped aside to expose the upper surface of the cultural deposit, which is considered a “midden” (Thomas 1979:463-464).

The midden typically ranged from 2.8-3.5 m thick. In general, the midden was thinner to the south and east, where the lowest topography was found. There were no significant in situ cultural features within or below the midden; the deposit formed through hundreds, if not thousands, of discrete dumping events. The dumped material derived from multiple households (both high and low income), as well as from area businesses; thus it is a multiple-source point midden. As a result, the midden is internally stratified and contains various lenses. The major sub-strata and lenses are illustrated in the trench profiles. Other notable lenses include various dense deposits of pure plate glass that are suggestive of industrial dumping, possibly from the Nurrie Glass Co., once found to the south of the site. The lowest midden was believed to be purely domestic in origin, and it tended to be more compact, drier, and exhibited multiple burned zones and rusted metal zones that were not found in the upper 2 m of midden.

At the close of the project, 89.56 cubic m of fill had been hand excavated from the 14 units. The removed soil was screened through 0.25 in. mesh hardware cloth to ensure consistent artifact recovery. This resulted in the recovery of >22,000 individually counted artifacts, as well as another >269.4 Kg of artifacts enumerated by mass only. Additionally, the back dirt from the mechanically cut back Trench 1 and 2 profiles consisted of artifact rich, redeposited midden from the upper 1 m of the site, and winter rains exposed hundreds of additional artifacts on the backdirt.

Artifact Patterns The excavations resulted in the recovery of a treasure trove of cultural material dating principally to ca. 1890-1920, and most broadly dating to ca. 1870-1939. Over 22,000 artifacts were recovered. The overall pattern found in the Lamar Terrace assemblage is most akin to rural “tenant” farm assemblages that are archaeologically documented in “Delta” counties along the Mississippi River near Memphis. The archaeological characteristics of tenant period sites include high frequencies of Kitchen Group artifacts (up to 85 percent), primarily bottle glass and ceramics, all dating from ca. 1875-1950. Given that the archival research (see Historical Context) suggests that the Lamar Terrace site contains refuse from low-income families from the Roper’s Alley “slum” residents, it is interesting to observe similarity between the roughly contemporary rural and urban data sets.

Another characteristic of late-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century assemblages that the Lamar Terrace site exhibits is the Kitchen glass to Kitchen ceramics ratio. Whereas earlier sites typically produce more ceramics than glass, later sites demonstrate the reverse pattern. At Lamar Terrace, glass is the most abundant category within the Kitchen Group, forming 49 percent of the group by count. The predominance of glass in early twentieth-century site assemblages is a reflection of the impact that the 1880-1920 revolution in glass container production had on consumer behavior.

In fact, one of the most outstanding archaeological characteristics of the Lamar Terrace site is the abundance of whole glass containers. During the data recovery, 1,751 whole bottles were collected, and this is in addition to the 945 whole bottles that were recovered during the monitoring. Selected examples are illustrated in this web page (see Discovered Artifacts); many more are illustrated in the technical reports.

We compared the Lamar Terrace bottle assemblage to two other excavated Memphis sites in Beale St. area that are roughly contemporary, the Gibson Guitar site (40SY611) and the Rum Boogie site (40SY494), and found that the Lamar Terrace site shows significantly lower percentages of alcoholic drinks. The overall suggestion was that the Gibson and Rum Boogie sites exhibit a discrete archaeological signature that is a reflection of their location within the Beale St. Historic District, which was (and is) a locality associated with entertainment and night life. In contrast, the Lamar Terrace site is reflective of early suburban activity, which was largely domestic in nature, and removed from the action that W.C. Handy immortalized in the “Beale Street Blues.”

Conclusions The archaeological investigations at the Lamar Terrace site, which was located at on the eastern edge of Memphis during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, resulted in the generation of significant information regarding turn-of-the-century suburban lifeways in a southern U.S. city. During the site’s primary period of deposition, 1890-1920, some of the most significant social and technological changes in our nation’s history occurred, and the site preserved a record of this evolution from the perspective of a neighborhood-level dump. The treasure trove of artifacts that was recovered revealed that these early Memphis urbanites were active participants in global and regional economic systems that emerged during the Progressive Era.