Tracking Atlanta’s History

Posted On November 8, 2012 by Clynton Nuomo

Downtown Atlanta isn’t exactly known for its archaeological significance, but a group of anthropology students is discovering treasure here nonetheless.

Georgia State University’s Department of Anthropology recently took possession of the MARTA collection, an enormous trove of artifacts dug up during the mass transit system’s construction more than 30 years ago.

The items, more than 100,000 artifacts that fill 469 boxes spread throughout several labs, encompass the late 19th and early 20th centuries and provide a snapshot of the lives of their owners.

“The hope is that this collection will better help us understand the process of urbanization,” said assistant professor of anthropology Jeffrey Glover, who is leading the project to study the collection.

The collection is unlike anything most anthropology students have studied before.

Senior anthropology major Meagan Moran thought she would examine Native American artifacts at Georgia State, but last month she was inspecting Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root Kidney Liver and Bladder Cure, a patent cure that sold in the South around the beginning of the last century.

“This is an awesome opportunity to work with stuff that was pulled out of the ground right around the corner,” Moran said.

It’s unclear if the cure had any medicinal properties, but one thing is certain: it contained 10.5 percent alcohol.

The collection’s arrival at Georgia State is a homecoming of sorts.

Former Georgia State professor of anthropology Roy Dickens oversaw the MARTA excavations, which occurred at more than 30 sites throughout Atlanta, and took the collection with him when he moved to the University of North Carolina.

Dickens died several years ago and the artifacts were transferred to the University of Georgia, where they languished in a warehouse until being brought to Georgia State this fall.

Glover and his students are now undertaking the gargantuan task of cataloging and studying the artifacts, a process that is expected to take years. Glover said he expects dozens of his students to work on the MARTA collection.

All that hard work will dig up a trove of information about everyday Atlantans.

“It’s really the diversity of the assemblage that’s so surprising,” Glover said.

There are bottles, pots, food bones, barrels, silverware, dishes and much more. Each item helps to highlight how ordinary Atlantans lived. It is an aspect of history that is often overlooked.

For example, Glover said they have found many oyster shells, indicating that a foodstuff people today consider a delicacy was once for working class residents.

“Historical archaeology has a lot of appeal and a lot of insights we can gain,” Glover said.