Curated by Dr. Jeffrey Glover, the Phoenix Project labs house the bulk of the 469 boxes that comprise the MARTA archaeological collection.
In the 1970s Georgia State University archaeologists conducted systematic excavations associated with the construction of the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) rail lines. This project recovered the material culture remains of Atlanta’s past, and these materials represent the single most comprehensive archaeological collection of Atlanta’s history. In addition, the excavations themselves are among the pioneering projects of urban archaeology in early days of CRM (Cultural Resource Management). Thus, just the excavation archive—part of the collection—is invaluable for the understanding the history of archaeology in the US, especially the burgeoning new field of urban archaeology.
· The entire collection has recently been returned to GSU.
· 469 medium-sized “banker” boxes housing over 100,000 artifacts
· The collection includes all the accompanying documentation and excavation archive
The collection offers glimpses of significant “moments” in the life of the city, including:
· Several Civil War sites associated with the Battle of Atlanta.
· Household and Municipal-scale trash depositional behaviors
· The late 19th and early 20th century, the time of Atlanta’s rebirth as a major metropolitan area.
This subject matter is ideal for GSU, Atlanta’s most centrally located urban university, as well as for MARTA. Furthermore, roughly 25 percent of the collection stems from the city’s first municipal landfill, integrating the most contemporary form of archaeology – Garbology. The collection opens immense opportunities for faculty and student research, interdisciplinary collaborations, and public education and outreach.
Beginning in 1974, MARTA first contracted with GSU for small-scale research on sections of the proposed rail lines. This partnership continued in the following years with more substantial contracts signed in 1975, 1976, 1977, and 1979 (Dickens and Bowen 1980:43).
The archaeological recovery work eventually encompassed the entire area cleared during MARTA’s first phase of construction, including potential alternate routes. In essence, the MARTA rail lines followed the pattern of the interstate system by splitting the city into four quadrants. Thus, Dickens’ surveys created a north/south and east/west transect across the city. In total 30 sites were identified by Dickens and his crew throughout Atlanta. At the end of the project, MARTA made an indefinite loan of the materials to GSU under the supervision of Dr. Dickens.
Excavation: In many ways, the process of conducting urban CRM work was a learning experience for those involved. The project began just a few years after the 1966 NHPA that required archaeological investigation on federally funded projects. From the official documents it is clear that Dickens began conducting what was largely ‘salvage’ work – identifying sites as they were inadvertently destroyed by construction. However, the team quickly adjusted and adapted innovative methods for working with construction crews to identify and protect sites without delaying the larger MARTA project. The fieldwork coincided with meticulous lab work at Georgia State University. The current project is indebted to the hard work of Dr. Dickens and his colleagues and students. Every single artifact in the collection has been labeled with provenience and accession numbers. In addition, there are “Specimen Catalogs” for the sites where basic counts and descriptions of the artifacts were maintained. This detailed work greatly reduces the time and effort we have to invest to make the collection accessible to scholars and the public.
Legacy Data: In 1982, Dr. Dickens left GSU for the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill to assume the role of Director of the Research Laboratories in Anthropology. It is clear from letters associated with the collection that Dr. Dickens had every intention to continue his analysis of the MARTA materials once at UNC. In fact, he arranged for the collection to be temporarily loaned to UNC and brought it to Chapel Hill. As Dickens and Bowen (1980:43) wrote, “[c]urrently a computerized inventory is being developed for the more than 100,000 items that have been catalogued.” We have the data forms that were being used for the punch cards but sadly this task was never finished due to Roy Dickens untimely passing in 1986.
Many years later, the orphaned collection came to the attention of Dr. Mark Williams of UGA. After relocating and temporarily storing the entire collection safely at UGA, Dr. Williams contacted Dr. Glover about returning the entire collection to its original home at Georgia State. Dr. Glover has since been able to relocate and acquire lab space for the collection. Archaeological methods courses, undergraduate student presentations, as well as master’s students have all been directly involved with uncovering, sorting, re-bagging, and preliminary digitization of the collection. In addition, we have benefited from a continued relationship with the Greater Atlanta Archaeological Society, an advocational archaeology group, which has volunteers. The arrival, or return, of this monumental collection has afforded a new generation of future archaeologists an opportunity to gain a unique perspective on the city, the past, and our discipline.
Working with legacy data presents archaeologists with opportunities as well as challenges. As Vitelli (2012:4) notes, we have “an ethical obligation to redefine stewardship as something other than benign neglect.” It is with this sentiment in mind that we began the Phoenix Project as a contemporary effort to re-enliven this legacy data to make it accessible to scholars and the public.
Heurist: The major focus of the Phoenix Project today is the digitization of the collection. Digitization involves data entry, scanning of field notes, reports, and maps, as well as the transformation of those data into an accessible dataset via the web. An archaeological project is only as good as its notes and records. This is particularly true when working with legacy data. No one from the original team of excavators is working with the collection today. Instead, an entirely new generation of students are engaging with a massive collection whose analysis was essentially paused for 30 years. In many ways, current digital transcription of original notes involves interpretation of a new type of artifact: hand-written notes and documentation from the 70’s. For that reason creating easily accessible and interpretable digitized field notes to accompany the other digital data is critical. As Conway and Proffitt (2011:27) note, “[i]n a world that is increasingly shaped by the view that ‘if it isn’t online it doesn’t exist,’ digitization of specials collections material is – or should be – at or near the top of our priority list.” Digitization and accessibility are certainly the most immediate goals of the Phoenix Project and the reason GSU has teamed with the Heurist team at the University of Sydney.
Arts eResearch at the University of Sydney has been developing a flexible web-based database – Heurist – for Humanities data for the past 6 years. This database has been used in numerous research and public outreach projects, including the important public resource, the Dictionary of Sydney (dictionaryofsydney.org) for which it provides both the editorial tool and the public interface, and more recently in the development of publication data for legacy archaeological collections (notably the Zagora project). Heurist is unique in integrating and linking a wide variety of data, from quantitative data on artifacts and trenches through notes and photographs to mapping data and annotation of resources. Apart from providing a multi-user, web-based interface with different levels of security for different users, Heurist provides facilities for republishing the data for both professional and public access using a variety of output formats, from lists, maps and timelines to data feeds for input to other software or consolidator sites. The database will also be made publicly accessible, so that one of the Southeast’s most expansive urban archaeological projects can finally provide vital information about the history of Atlanta’s development from a small railroad hub to the major metropolis in the Southeast.