These boxes contain the lost pieces of a tumultuous past that dates to the city’s earliest days — bullet casings from the Civil War, mystery tonics in antique glass bottles, creepy toys, fashion accessories, ancient grooming tools and much more. Many of them still await examination and haven’t been opened since archaeologists first packed them four decades ago.
This massive array of objects is called the Phoenix Project, and Georgia State professors and students have been methodically studying, cataloging and mapping each item since 2011.
Collected all over the city between 1976 and 1980, the objects belong to the largest archeological collection ever associated with Atlanta. They are the fruit of one of America’s earliest urban archaeological projects — the roving excavation that followed construction crews as the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) cleared land, leveled blocks and tunneled underground to build the first iteration of its rail system.
Jeffrey Glover, associate professor of anthropology, has curated the Phoenix Project for years in hopes of providing the public with a different kind of city history, a slice of Atlanta’s past through the lens of historical objects.
Choosing one box among hundreds, Glover removes a small amber bottle that once held Valentine’s Meat Juice, a concentrated beef tonic from the 1870s. Advertisements said it could help with gastroenteritis, dysentery and even cholera.
“It was supposed to bring vitality,” Glover says, “like an early energy drink.”
From another box, he takes out the misshapen head of a porcelain doll. Featuring dark, empty eye sockets and covered in burn marks, the scary toy looks hungry for souls. While Glover affectionately calls it the “creepy doll head,” its official artifact ID is “a3161,” written in impeccable script with archival ink across its neck.
That’s because the archaeologists who bagged all this stuff in the 1970s methodically described and organized each item using a numbering system adapted from the Georgia Department of Transportation. For example, the “a” in “a3161” stands for “general artifact” while the number indicates the item was the 3,161st general artifact to be cataloged from that accession. (And there are about 100 accessions.) Containers, such as glass and pottery, begin with “p,” and building materials with “m.” Plant remains use “eb” for “ethnobotanical” while animal bones start with “ez” for “ethnozoological.”
Just one of the standard cardboard bankers boxes can contain dozens, if not hundreds, of artifacts, each wrapped in brown paper and labeled with a unique artifact ID. Though they’ve all been recorded in a logbook alongside a one-line description, unwrapping each one is like opening a birthday present because you don’t know exactly what you’ll get.
“It’s an excavation of boxes,” says Lori Thompson (M.A. ’16), assistant laboratory director at New South Associates. Thompson wrote her master’s thesis on the Phoenix Project and now comes in one day a month to help with its modernization. “You have stuff on paper and expect something to be in a box, but it can be a completely different story once you open it.”
History can be hard to come by in a city like Atlanta. Where people are usually too busy building new things to preserve the past, a collection like the Phoenix Project becomes priceless.
With roots that stretch back to the 1830s, Atlanta began with little design or forethought as a sleepy settlement at the end of Georgia’s Western & Atlantic Railroad. Down on the far side of the tracks, it picked up the name “Terminus” and later incorporated as Atlanta in 1847.
Anchored by nothing more than a milepost and a railroad crossing, it quickly sprouted into a boosterish, slapdash town of factories, taverns and tenements in neighborhoods with names like Slabtown and Snake Nation. But after just 17 years, the entire city burned to the ground during the Civil War.
It has continuously reinvented itself ever since, evolving from a dense trolley town to a sprawling metropolis of interstates and high rises. Now the heart of the nation’s 10th largest metropolitan area, it has often been willing to raze historic structures and even entire districts to make way for new developments.
But thanks to a Georgia State project from the 1970s, that pattern was broken — at least for a moment.
By the 1960s, a century after Union forces torched every block, the population had grown large enough that a rapid transit system became necessary. MARTA was established in 1965.
Around the same time, the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 was signed into law, requiring projects with federal funding to take into consideration their impact on historic or archaeological sites. According to Glover, the act created the industry of “cultural resource management” in the U.S.
A few years later, the Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act became law in 1974, which obligated agencies that received federal funding to preserve historical and archeological data that might otherwise get lost or destroyed.
The construction of MARTA was one of the first major urban projects to take advantage of the two preservation acts, giving archaeologists the opportunity to survey and excavate miles of Atlanta dirt, rich with buried relics, for the first time.
Built where homes, taverns and dumps once stood, where Confederates and Federals once waged war, the MARTA lines would start at the city’s center near Five Points. From there, they’d run in the four cardinal directions to follow the paths set by the early railroads that spawned Terminus.
Tasked with completing 13.7 miles of heavy rail and opening 17 stations by 1980, MARTA broke ground and started laying track in February 1975, a year after the agency demolished the first house in the train’s path. Under pressure from the new federal legislation, MARTA contracted with Georgia State in 1976 to conduct archaeological surveys during the demolition and construction phases.
Led by Roy Dickens (B.A. ’63), an associate professor of anthropology, a team of archaeologists, student assistants and volunteers spent the next five years salvaging and collecting as many items as they could before MARTA displaced them forever.
Dickens’ goal was not only to preserve Atlanta history but also, as he wrote in the journal Historical Archaeology, to understand the development of American city life.
The field of urban archaeology in America was in its infancy when construction began, so Dickens and his team had to create their own procedures for collecting, excavating, preserving and cataloging the items they found. Dickens had also spent his career up to that point concentrating on prehistoric archaeology, so the project was even more unfamiliar.
Working with engineers and construction workers, the team inspected every area affected by the first phase of MARTA construction. MARTA had mapped its future rail corridors and divided them into areas called Construction Contact Units (CCUs), which ranged from about 50,000 to 100,000 square meters. Each CCU was then further divided into parcels of about 1,000 to 2,000 square meters.
Using these maps, two or more members of the survey team would walk side by side at two-meter intervals through each sub-parcel, picking up and bagging everything they found. Sometimes this meant walking behind heavy machinery as it dug up the earth or combing an area just after old structures had been demolished. After inspecting the surface, the team used shovels, augers, and even metal detectors and backhoes to uncover items they may have missed.
The rapid pace of MARTA’s construction posed many challenges for the team, which kept detailed field notes that have been preserved as part of the Phoenix Project. As Thompson describes in her master’s thesis, the notes show how the archaeologists had to hop back and forth from one location to another, dealing with different engineers and contractors at each site, and excavate sites that had just been revealed after large earthmoving equipment had completely altered the landscape.
In one example, the notes from July 1, 1977, describe how the archaeologists excavating a single CCU near East Lake had to work on a site owned by Georgia Power alongside rerouted traffic on the recently opened Dekalb Avenue, under a bridge and by a new water main.
As the team collected items — such as the creepy doll head, which was found beneath a viaduct along MARTA’s West Line — they brought them back to Kell Hall, where they washed, sorted, counted, labeled and cataloged each one with the date and location of its discovery.
Some items received special treatment to prevent damage. Bones and shells got soaked in detergent and acetone. Iron and steel were cleaned with manganese phospholene and treated with clear acrylic. Paper got dry brushed, soaked in a magnesium bicarbonate solution and air dried before treated with fungicide.
The exact number of items collected is still unknown, but between 1976 and 1980 more than 100,000 were cataloged, wrapped in brown paper and placed into site-specific bankers boxes. While Glover and his team have fully reprocessed more than 20 percent of the artifacts, about half of them have never left their boxes.
The boxes didn’t stay at Georgia State for long, however. In 1982, Dickens took a position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He brought most of the documentation related to the MARTA collection with him, and the boxes soon followed.
While Dickens continued to analyze the items in Chapel Hill, he died in 1986 at the age of 48. An obituary said his dedication to archaeology in the American Southeast was “unwavering.” In 2000, the 500-odd boxes of artifacts, field notes and laboratory records were moved to the Georgia Museum of Natural History at the University of Georgia in Athens, where they were mostly ignored for years.
Not long after Glover arrived at Georgia State in 2006, he heard about the MARTA collection from colleagues, including former geology professor Kenneth Terrell, who had worked at the university in the early 1980s when the artifacts were being processed.
“I recognized there was a great opportunity and, in some ways, an ethical obligation to try to use this collection for research,” Glover says. “There is a problem in archaeology where legacy collections sit neglected in storage and never receive the type of research they deserve.”
Much of Glover’s archaeological work has taken place in Mexico, where he studies ancient Maya communities. But when he comes home, the Maya antiquities stay in Mexico. With the MARTA collection, Glover saw a chance to bring the Atlanta artifacts back to their original home to give students practical, original research opportunities. Thanks to Glover’s persistence and the help of Mark Williams, director of the Georgia Archaeological Site Files and the Laboratory of Archaeology at the University of Georgia, the MARTA materials started returning to Georgia State in 2011.
Had Dickens and the earlier archaeological team not done such a thorough job documenting the collection in the 1970s and ’80s, Glover would not have been so eager to bring it home. Though their cataloging methods are somewhat dated by today’s standards — paper notebooks, handwritten notes, hand-drawn maps — working with the enormous collection would be daunting, if not impossible, without them. With all the hard work done by the original archaeologists, Glover and his students and colleagues can forge ahead.
“We get to do the fun stuff,” he says.
Now known as the Phoenix Project, the artifacts have risen from the ground — and come back from the dead — to make up the largest archeological collection ever associated with Atlanta.
Its size and variety allow it to be used across disciplines at Georgia State. Glover has a student interested in bio-anthropology who wanted experience working with and identifying animal bones. Now she’s using animal bones from the collection to complete her study and create a sub-collection for future students.
Over in the English Department, Robin Wharton has been using Phoenix Project artifacts in her writing courses. In one class, each student selects an object to catalog and study over a semester. Creating digital 3-D models of their objects and writing essays about them, Wharton’s students gain experience with historical research, digital technology and writing all at once. (Their work is available to the public at AtlantaArtifacts.net, where visitors can play with some of the students’ 3-D models and read their research.)
Items students have analyzed include a Civil War–era belt buckle, a porcelain teapot, a decorative makeup compact, a pewter canteen and, of course, the creepy doll head.
One student studied a 19th-century toothbrush handle and used it as a prompt for an essay on the history of dental hygiene. In 1866, Massachusetts’ Florence Manufacturing Company began mass-producing the “Pro-phy-lac-tic Tooth Brush,” which was made of plastic, not bone like its predecessors. The company spent a lot on advertising, and the student found old ads to include with the essay. On AtlantaArtifacts.net, you can view the toothbrush handle in three dimensions, complete with bits of dirtied bristle.
According to Wharton, her classes are “pulling archival material off the shelf and putting it into the hands of students,” which not only benefits the Phoenix Project but also gives students an “authentic scholarly context for learning.”
These students are often the first to document discoveries from the collection, which gives experienced scholars a place to start later. As Glover says, “An entirely new generation of students are engaging with a massive collection whose analysis was paused for 30 years.”
Glover and Thompson have high hopes for the collection. They envision MARTA stations displaying items from the collection so the public can see what the ground beneath them once held. They want to see pop-up museums of Phoenix Project artifacts throughout the city, complete with immersive 3-D technology showing how Atlanta looked in 1928 with the objects dropped in. Whereas many archaeological collections can’t afford to disclose the original locations of valuable artifacts, there’s no harm in doing so with the Phoenix Project. After all, nosy intruders can’t damage sites that have been gone for decades.
Atlanta historians and archaeologists also have an interest in seeing the Phoenix Project made more accessible. But there is a lot more work to do. While Glover and his team have fully reprocessed more than 20 percent of the collection, Thompson calculated in 2016 it would take 4,750 person-hours to process the remaining boxes. That includes repackaging each item in polyethylene plastic bags, creating a digital catalog with a new purely numeric identification system, scanning all the notes and documentation, and mapping every bit of it.
Glover and Thompson show how it’s done as they excavate an unexplored box. After lifting the cover, they remove and unwrap item a50 from CCU 350, which means it’s a general artifact found near the West End station. It’s a 14-inch head from a metal mattock, a digging tool similar to a pickaxe, with a remnant of the wooden handle still embedded in it. They place the object in a plastic bag and log it in a database, retaining a portion of the old brown paper that contains the ID tag, which they include with the mattock in the bag.
With every object they repackage, returning items to their original boxes, already filled to capacity, becomes slightly more difficult. So, as the collection is examined and cataloged and protected from harm, the number of boxes grows.
“It just keeps expanding,” says Thompson.
Given Kell Hall’s imminent demolition, the collection will be relocated to a new archaeology lab in Dahlberg Hall this summer, where the valuable work of reprocessing the items will continue.
“The new lab will greatly facilitate our work on the collection, but so much remains to be done,” Glover says. “Our goal is to uncover and share the stories these artifacts tell about the history and development of the Southeast’s largest city, but we need support from the Atlanta and university communities to do that effectively. New resources will allow us to continue our work, fund more graduate students and acquire the supplies we need to move forward.”
Though Glover’s students have been helping, the process could still take years to complete. But he and his colleagues share a dream that, once everything is digitized, residents, neighbors, students and scholars spanning a host of disciplines — from Atlanta and beyond — will have easy access to the invaluable collection and the painstaking work of its researchers and curators.
A bottle from Jacobs’ Pharmacy, bullets shot during the Battle of Atlanta, the creepy doll head, a flour token and 100,000 more gems mined from the earth under our feet — these are rare clues to the wild history of a sleepy town called Terminus that grew into a leading global city.
Photos by Carolyn Richardson