It's Summertime and, Well, the Diggin' is Easy
Summertime is slow in New Orleans, but, as driving or trying-to-sleep New Orleanians are well-aware, construction is booming. Much of St. Charles Avenue is closed down to one lane, houses are springing up out of empty lots, and us in the French Quarter? We’re digging. The Beauregard-Keyes House is currently undergoing stage two of our extensive drainage project. As workers dig up the courtyard and driveway to replace and repair old drainage pipes, staff members may be out of a parking space, but they also have the exciting chance to do some archaeological work. Gina Willie, the daughter of Rosanna Giacona Shepherd (who has been much storied of late due to her role in our current Piccolo Palermo exhibit), recently spent a Saturday with her kids metal-detecting and digging throughout our renovation site to see if they could find any items of historical value. Though we are still holding out on finding a hidden graveyard or Jean Lafitte’s treasure, some fascinating items did turn up that transport us back to the early 1800s and help trace the earliest roots of the Beauregard-Keyes house.
In addition to a few very old, long out-of-service sewage pipes (attn: they look a lot like clay pots!), also discovered were pieces of blue and white ceramic plates, a polished animal tusk, telling building materials, and a distinctive shard of thick aqua glass.
This tusk, which once belonged to a pig, is well polished, and Ann believes it was likely a decorative handle on an item such as a parasol, umbrella, or perhaps even a coffee pot.
Former Tulane Professor of Architectural History/Executive Director at Hermann-Grima and Gallier Historic Houses, Ann Masson, is our current Board President at the Beauregard-Keyes House, and she also spent years identifying artifacts for Neal Auction Company. As a result of this training, she is often able to take one look at a historical object and divine its material and provenance.
The plates, Ann believes, are of two different types in the general Creamware category. Quite similar at first glance, a layman or woman might easily confuse the pieces as having been a part of the same plate. However, the slightly deeper blue of the two plates is Feather Edge, an English ceramic that was commonly found in the U.S. between the years of 1800 and 1830. Though very pretty, Feather Edge was not fine china, Ann says, and would have been a secondary set for the wealthy families that lived in the Beauregard-Keyes House in its earliest days. The plate shards featuring a brighter blue are from a different type of English ceramic, called Transferware. From roughly the same time period as Feather Edge, Transferware was named for the revolutionary process developed in 18th century Staffordshire, England by which its ceramics were painted. For the first time, each plate would not have been individually painted, but rather decorated far more quickly through a process not dissimilar from printing. As the house was built in 1826, these plates likely belonged to the French Creole LeCarpentier family, the original owners of the house. That said, as these varietals of ceramics were popular in the years leading up to 1826 as well, it is also possible that they were left even earlier by the Ursulines nuns, who owned the lot at 1113 Chartres Street from 1726-1825.
This thick aqua shard of glass was instantly identified by Ann as a fragment from a bottle produced by Pablo & Co., a soda and mineral water company that quickly took off in Louisiana after its founding in 1849. Produced on Royal Street just next to the Gallier House, Ann says, these mint-blue bottles were made notably thick so as to survive any turbulence experienced during the shipping process. In the mid-1800s, the bottles were ubiquitous in New Orleans and by the 1870s, Sebastian Pablo had formed Crescent City Seltz and Mineral Water Company with his competitors. One of these bottles was recently discovered in Algiers Point at a former Civil War camp, and others are available for sale online as collector’s items.
Our last find, so far, was a large piece of building material found in the courtyard, largely consisting of clam shells and bits of old brick. Due to New Orleans’s noted proximity to water, the stability of land varies across neighborhoods, streets, and yes, even lots. Ann says it is and was not uncommon historically for builders to need to fill random holes and patches of unstable land during the building process. This find indicates that someone, many years ago, likely took whatever they could find— clams, oyster shells, sand, dirt and unused brick to stabilize a testy area in the BK House courtyard. A once common building material in New Orleans, pieces of oyster shell were also used to insulate the walls inside of the BK House.
Please check back with us as we finish up our renovation and repairs this summer to see if we come across any other artifacts or antiquities, or, stop by the house to see what we've dug up so far!