HomeAbout The Phoenix Project

About The Phoenix Project

The Phoenix Project: Resurrecting the MARTA Archaeological Collection and Atlanta’s Past

During the 1970s Georgia State University (GSU) archaeologists conducted systematic excavations associated with the construction of the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) rail lines. This project recovered the material 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 the then nascent field of CRM (Cultural Resource Management). Thus, just the excavation archive, which is part of the collection, is invaluable for the history of archaeology in the US, especially the burgeoning new field of urban archaeology. The entire collection (440 medium-sized “banker” boxes housing over 100,000 artifacts and all the accompanying documentation and excavation archive) has recently been returned to GSU. Showcasing significant “moments” in the life of the city, including several Civil War sites associated with the Battle of Atlanta, the majority of the collection corresponds to the late 19thand early 20thcentury, the time of Atlanta’s rebirth as a major metropolitan area, the collection opens immense opportunities for faculty and student research and public education and outreach.  Furthermore, it will facilitate interdisciplinary collaborations within GSU, as well as with other universities in the Atlanta-area for the curation, conservation, study, and exhibition of the artifacts and archive.

History, Scope, and Duration

MARTA originally contracted with GSU in 1974 for small-scale research on the sections of the proposed rail lines.  This partnership expanded in subsequent 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. In essence, the MARTA rail lines created a north/south and east/west transect across the city.  In total 30 sites were identified by Dickens and his crew across the city. At the end of the project, MARTA made an indefinite loan of the materials to GSU.

The fieldwork coincided with meticulous lab work at Georgia State University.  The 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. 

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.



Interested in volunteering or studying the collection? Contact Jeffrey Glover jglover@gsu.edu

Volunteering would mostly include re-bagging artifacts. This means taking everything out of the original paper bags and transferring them to archival quality storage. Along the way you find all sorts of interesting things that have been hidden for decades. This has been the bulk of the work for the duration of the project. The more the merrier, it's a pretty simple process that gets you familiar with some archeological methodology.