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Archaeological dig at cathedral yields finds dating back to founding of New Orleans

Thursday, July 17, 2008

NEW ORLEANS -- The first archaeological dig at one of the nation's oldest cathedrals has turned up a mix of new finds in the heart of the French Quarter. Discoveries behind St. Louis Cathedral include a small silver crucifix from the 1770s or 1780s and traces of previously unknown buildings dating back to around the city's founding in 1718.

The crucifix might have belonged to Pere Antoine, a Capuchin monk who was rector of the cathedral which dominates Jackson Square, lead archaeologist Shannon Lee Dawdy said Tuesday.

Pere Antoine came to New Orleans under the Spanish Inquisition as the Rev. Antonio de Sedella and lived in a hut behind the cathedral, where he was rector from the late 1700s until his death in 1829.

The crucifix "was found in a corner of the garden, near where Pere Antoine's hut was said to have been and dates to the period near the beginning of his time in New Orleans (1770s-1780s)," Dawdy wrote in an e-mail. The artifact will be sent to experts for evaluation.

Dawdy, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, and eight students spent a month excavating St. Anthony's Garden, a fenced area behind the cathedral. They concluded their work earlier this week.

The cathedral was completed in 1851 to replace one that burned down, along with most of the city, in 1788.

Until now there has never been an archaeological excavation anywhere on its property, said cathedral spokeswoman Nancy Averett. After Hurricane Katrina toppled the garden's live oaks and sycamores in August 2005, the cathedral secured a Getty Foundation grant to restore the garden and dig into its history.

Finds have included clay pipes, children's marbles, remains of china dolls and bits of what may be some of the first American Indian trade goods in Louisiana.

The crucifix is about 1 3/4 inches high; the face of Christ might fit on half of a grain of rice. The right arm of the cross and the right side and chest of the figure of Christ are badly corroded. The figure's right arm and much of the minuscule face are gone.

Dawdy said the most significant find is probably the foundation of a hut where archaeologists uncovered a mixture of French artifacts from the early 1700s and fragments of American Indian pottery, some painted red and others tempered with crushed shells.

A thin L of dark soil in a layer several feet below the surface showed where wood walls had rotted -- probably from a temporary hut where settlers may have lived while clearing trees for the first settlement, Dawdy said. In the corner of the L was a square post-hole -- a sign of French axes.

The walls don't line up with the street grid set in 1724, so the hut probably was built before that and may be from the settlement's start, Dawdy said.

In another pit, Dawdy and her crew found sloping bricks from a colonial sidewalk and -- below that -- cypress timbers from another building not on any city map.

Unlike the hut, those timbers align with the 1724 street grid, Dawdy said Tuesday. She said the building probably dates from the 1720s or '30s.

"There are at least six timbers in place -- three upright and three running lengthwise," she said. "We just caught a piece of it."

She hopes to return for further excavation.

"This site is by far the richest and most interesting one I have worked on yet in New Orleans and the excellent preservation of the frontier phase of the city's founding makes it the 'Jamestown' of the Lower Mississippi Valley," she wrote in her e-mail.


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