November 30, 2010

Archaeology of a Mural of Archaeology

I was in New Orleans for the American Anthropological Association meeting last week. I stayed down on Frenchmen Street, which is at the end of Decatur, about a mile-long walk from the conference venue. In the other direction on Frenchmen was a small park. It wasn't until Sunday morning, just minutes before grabbing a cab to the airport, that I noticed a mural on the Apple Barrel Bar, just a block away from the hotel:

If you click to embiggen the picture (apologies for the palm tree shadow), you'll notice that the mural depicts a white-haired, balding man with glasses who is screening dirt and finding pieces of pottery. The further accoutrements (a vase, a book, a pick) declare his trade: archaeology. I was stupidly excited to find a mural of an archaeologist - complete with what seem to be actual artifacts stuck into the screen - a stone's throw from my hotel while at an anthropology conference. (Google street view unfortunately has a giant beer truck in the way, but you can kind of see the mural here.)

I was determined to find out more about this mural once I got back home to a proper internet connection. But I largely came up short. Kris Hirst's archaeology page at has this thumbnail image of the archaeologist, but no further information about the mural. Then I discovered this page on, which tells me:

"The white-haired, white male archaeologist is sitting on a box that--as you look more closely, is the roof of the warehouse that may have once stood on the site being excavated. Shards of pottery and shell are embedded in the mural. The Greater New Orleans Archaeology Program uses it as a background image on their website and identify it as 'Neighborhood Archaeology' by Rain Webb, 1986. Commissioned by and courtesy of Phil Esteve, Apple Barrel Bar & Restaurant, 609 Frenchman St., N.O., LA."

The GNOAP no longer has the mural on their webpage (although they have an amazing fleur-de-lis in which the upright petal is replaced by a trowel!). I searched for the title of the mural and for the artist, but to no avail. The Apple Barrel Bar seems to have no website, and the proprietor who commissioned the mural passed away a few years ago.

Uncertain where to turn next, I contacted the director of the GNOAP, Andrea White, to see what she knew about the mural. Andrea emailed me the following:

"To my knowledge, [the mural] was not tied to any specific archaeology project in the vicinity although it was painted soon after the completion of several large-scale projects in the city. [...] As for the inspiration of the archaeologist... that is still a question too since it does not resemble anyone locally. Yes, the finds are real, and I'm not sure of their origin. I am tracking down sources now to write a small article on it, so I will keep you informed."

What really interests me is that the artist chose to depict an archaeologist in this way: older, white, male, balding, with glasses and a beard. I assumed this depicted a real person because most archaeologists in the popular imagination are young(ish) rogues - Indiana Jones, Lara Croft, among others. (At the AAA meeting, a student at, I think, Bloomsburg University was passing out surveys on popular conceptions of archaeologists, which coincided nicely with my thoughts on the subject matter of the mural!) In this situation, then, is the conception of an archaeologist as a mature white man a counterpoint to the expected discourse? Does it accurately reflect the majority of archaeologists in the U.S.? Or does it belie an inherent assumption that knowledge is created by wise men?

The mystery of the archaeology mural in New Orleans continues! I'm looking forward to hearing what Andrea finds out about the mural and the artifacts that make up its central focus. If anyone out there has additional information about this mural - or even just comments on its subject - let me know!


Anonymous said...

Well at least this image is accurately depicting archaeology, regardless of how accurately it depicts archaeologists. So many people seem to think archaeologists deal with dinosaurs.

Anonymous said...

the some artist did the ceiling in the bar across the street

Anonymous said...

sorry. the same artist did the ceiling in the bar across the street. no sure what the bar is called these days.

Anonymous said...

its called the blue nile bar.

Anonymous said...

Maybe check with N.O. artist James Michalopoulos. His studio is just across Chartes from that mural, and I recall him telling me the history once in the late 80's. Seems as though it was an actual person, amateur, who dug the currently vacant lot in front of the mural after the structure was destroyed.

Anonymous said...


Michael Z said...

The bar that has the ceiling painted by Rain Webb was called the Dream Palace at the time that the ceiling was painted in the 80's. I have a great painting by Rain, which I just rehung in my house today, which prompted me to "google" him.

Kristina Killgrove said...

Apparently it's been painted over now. Sad.

dedbud said...

I'm sitting in Brick Oven Cafe near the New Orleans airport and he has a ghastly mural here so I googled his name and it led me to your page.

Jan Tucker said...

Rain Webb started painting the Dream Palace (now Blue Nile) murals in the 70's.

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