Anthropologist uncovers New Orleans’ early settlers
By William Harms
Photo courtesy of Megan Edwards
There is something about the materiality of objects touched and used by those now long dead that helps the social imagination.”
Assistant Professor in Anthropology
Shannon Dawdy moved to New Orleans in 1994 to write her master’s thesis. She worked during the day and came out at night to see parades and take part in the pulse of a city, and it wasn’t long until the place became “the home of my heart.”
She went on to earn a PhD in anthropology and history with a focus on French colonial New Orleans. Because of her strong research background, she was embedded as an archaeologist with the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Hurricane Katrina and suggested ways that the heritage of New Orleans could be preserved as the cleanup went forward.
Dawdy, an Assistant Professor in Anthropology who came to the University of Chicago in 2004, is now one of the nation’s leading scholars of urban archaeology. She and a team of eight graduate and undergraduate students traveled last summer to the Crescent City to dig in St. Antoine’s Garden behind St. Louis Cathedral, an area that Katrina severely damaged. There they uncovered the first evidence of extensive early interaction between French settlers and Native Americans.
“Artifact analysis is one of the delights of archaeology,” she says. “There is something about the materiality of objects touched and used by those now long dead that helps the social imagination.”
The project is part of a larger long-term effort to understand the economic and ecological factors that helped shape New Orleans’ unique Creole culture.
“The research has become the center of my passion for the city,” Dawdy says.
“Its complexity and quirkiness, particularly in the colonial period, is challenging and relatively untapped by scholars. New Orleans is a very good storyteller.”
Though she has deep emotional ties to New Orleans, Dawdy was born in Northern California. After finishing her MA, Dawdy worked with the University of New Orleans and city planners on a pilot project to secure grants for research projects that involved excavation, oral history, and other work to protect the city’s buried treasures.
St. Antoine’s Garden is a history book for Dawdy and her Chicago students, who recovered the earliest traces of a colonial site that is akin to Jamestown, Va. and Plymouth, Mass. Among their discoveries in the garden’s first comprehensive dig were the remnants of the earliest structure yet found in New Orleans.
The area, where Dawdy and her students shift through and identify pot sherds, bone fragments, and artifacts, is about the size of the quadrangle courtyard outside Haskell Hall.
Artifacts such as votive statuaries, children’s toys, coins, and evidence of past barbeques and picnics speak to the special place the garden area had in the lives of New Orleanians. All of the artifacts have stories to tell, even if they are brief and somewhat elusive.
“Little from the printed record acknowledges Native Americans as being part of the colonial founding of New Orleans,” said Dawdy. “Yet we found plenty of evidence of their presence,” she said.
From her undergraduate days, anthropology “was a way to embrace that feeling and figure out something about the world. It’s a way to effectively chase after people who think differently than you, and ask why.”
At Chicago, Dawdy says the courses she teaches “reflect the way in which my work straddles sociocultural anthropology, archaeology, and history—and also my focus on the Atlantic World.”
She also teaches practical lab courses on how to analyze the material culture of the modern era (post-1450), as well as a methods course for graduate students on working with archival materials. She also teaches the Colonizations core, which she says is a great foundation for her wildly popular class on piracy.
Her upper-level courses include one on the archaeology of race and ethnicity, which grew out of the necessity of grappling with the Creole complexities of New Orleans.
“I have taught a class on Louisiana culture through this same lens to help College students develop an anthropological approach to the slippery ways in which people classify themselves and others,” she says.