SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Crouched inside a square, 3-foot-deep excavation hole, Blake Ayala carefully scraped a sample of red-brown dirt into a small baggie.
Nearly a dozen high school and college students looked on that Saturday afternoon as the 23-year-old Georgia Southern University graduate student listed measurements, noting the changing colors of the decades-old dirt layers in the arched vault along Factors' Walk just east of City Hall.
Through a partnership between the university and the city of Savannah, Ayala is leading the archaeological survey of the four-vault structure beneath Bay Street, known as the Cluskey Embankment Stores.
"The hope is that we're going to be able to learn from this project what these areas were used for," Ayala said. "There isn't a lot known about what they were used for early on, so hopefully we'll help solve that mystery."
Many believe the vaults were used to house slaves before they were auctioned, said Luciana Spracher, director of the city's research library and municipal archives, but due to a lack of historical documentation that theory has never been proven.
What is known, she said, is the structures were designed by architect Charles B. Cluskey as part of a city project to prevent erosion in the area and to raise the public walkway above it to be even with Bay Street. Cluskey broke ground on the project in 1840, and it was completed by William S. Walker in 1842.
"Over the years the question of what these vaults were used for has been very interesting," she said. "We know they were used for storage, and we know for as many as 100 years — up until this last November — we've been using them for parking. Through this partnership with Georgia Southern we're going to really learn a lot about their history, which is a good thing for Savannah."
The project began early last year with a group of teenagers who were members of the Earl T. Shinhoster Youth Leadership Institute. In February 2012, they presented to the city council a plan for an archaeological investigation and eventually a restoration of the vaults.
Since beginning the excavation in November, Ayala and his team have uncovered dozens of artifacts — including an aged, fully intact medicine bottle — but Ayala doesn't expect those objects to unveil many of the vaults' secrets.
"They may give us a general idea, but we're really relying on soil samples," he said. "I think with the soil we're really going to be able to tell what went on here."
Ayala and the other team members from GSU will collect those samples from multiple areas of all four vaults — and a fifth vault that's remained sealed for decades — during the project. Once they've completed their excavation, likely in March, the samples will be tested for pollens that Ayala said will reveal what objects — living and/or inanimate — were kept there.
The vaults' location, Ayala said, has added another challenge to the project, because the students have typically worked in rural settings and haven't had to dig through layers of brick and other infrastructure such as sewer pipes.
"What's been fun is working here we're interacting a lot with folks walking by," Ayala said. "So, as far as working in an urban setting, that has really been good."
Sharing the process with the public is an important part of the project, said Georgia Southern anthropology professor Sue Moore. At certain points in the excavation the team is hosting Public Works Days — the next is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Feb. 16 — where people can tour the dig site and some are given the opportunity to work on the dig.
Moore hopes it will help build an interest and understanding in archaeology.
"I think that's one of the big things for us in doing this," Moore said. "I want the public to get the chance to see how it is that we do what we do, (and) I want them to realize that they should be invested in the history."
Once the project is completed, everything discovered will be housed in the city's municipal archives, Spracher said, adding she hopes signage will be displayed chronicling the vaults' history.
"This is an important project," Spracher said. "We're very focused on the history of Savannah. Obviously our history is a big draw for people who live here and for people who visit, and this is an incredible opportunity to learn even more about that history and to share it with the public."
Information from: Savannah Morning News, http://www.savannahnow.com