NEW ORLEANS — A century ago, sung in the Appalachian hills from the point of view of a young and weary prostitute, it was about the pitfalls of sin. In the 1940s, Woody Guthrie turned it into an anthem to working-class America. In the 1960s, it was about daring sexuality.
At every turn, even as its words wrapped themselves around new eras and sensibilities, "House of the Rising Sun" remained a song of New Orleans. The simple folk song in a minor key always spoke to the sultry allure of this city from its first words, an opening line seared into one generation after another: "There is a house in New Orleans they call the Rising Sun."
No one has figured out -- and many have tried -- if the song depicts an actual bordello, and, if it does, where the real Rising Sun was. But a collection of pottery shards pulled recently from the ruddy soil of the French Quarter could prove to be the key that would unlock that beloved mystery.
This winter, a nonprofit organization called the Historic New Orleans Collection decided to expand. The organization, which runs a museum and research center, owned seven buildings in the heart of the French Quarter but needed another to serve as a vault. The group bought a one-level, ramshackle parking garage on Conti Street -- pronounced KAHNT-eye -- and announced plans to tear it down.
The purchase was serendipitous. If just about anyone else had bought the lot, no study would have been conducted. But the organization -- dedicated, after all, to Louisiana history -- wanted to know the story behind its property. It asked a scholar at the University of Chicago and a New Orleans archeology firm called Earth Search to perform an excavation and document search.
"It was total luck," said Ryan Gray, an Earth Search archeologist involved in the excavation. "Normally somebody would just dig right through the ramparts of the first layout of New Orleans. There are no provisions to guard against that."
The archeologists, who plan to launch a more exhaustive study on Tuesday, found that a hotel called the Rising Sun appeared to have operated on the site from the early 1800s until 1822, when it burned to the ground.
In an 1821 advertisement from the newspaper La Gazette, a company called L.S. Hotchkiss explained that it had taken over the hotel but offered reassurance to customers: "No pain or expence [sic] will be spared by the new proprietors to give general satisfaction, and maintain the character of giving the best entertainment."
The next sentence: "Gentlemen may here rely upon finding attentive Servants." Similar language, Gray said, was used in old bordello advertisements to make it clear -- without explicitly saying so -- that extracurricular services were available.
Rising Sun has been a common business name here, however, for 200 years or so. There is a difference, the archeologists said, between finding a Rising Sun and finding the Rising Sun -- the one in the song.
About 2 1/2 feet below the surface, the researchers discovered a large number of liquor bottles. Alongside them was an unusually dense collection of rouge pots. The distinctive jars were painted sea green or blue and designed to hold makeup. They were heavier on the bottom than the top; that way a woman could sweep her fingertips across the rouge when she needed a touch-up without tipping the pot or stopping to pick it up.
The combination of liquor and evidence that there were lots of women who required much makeup was encouraging. Gray said it was also possible that fragments of bones lifted from the soil could be from exotic animals, though none had been found. Excavations of other houses of prostitution, he said, have shown that women who worked there frequently kept unusual pets, such as imported birds. Additional tests will be conducted in New Orleans on the bone fragments taken from the Conti Street site.
Shannon Dawdy, the Chicago scholar who led the excavation, said she was not prepared to declare that she had found the Rising Sun. When she and her students conduct the more detailed study, among other things, they will look at census reports to see if a large number of women were reported as residents of the hotel and at police reports to see if there were complaints or incident reports at the address.
"The archeology is suggestive at this point," Dawdy said. "I'm certainly excited just for the possibility. But I don't want to add to the mythology of New Orleans unnecessarily until I know more. Everything needs a caveat for now."
Many of those touched by the song are enchanted by it -- and by the possibility of an archeological breakthrough. Eric Burdon first heard it at a folk club when he was growing up in Newcastle, in northeastern England.
"I was fascinated with prostitution," Burdon recalled last week in an interview from his home in Joshua Tree, Calif. "I thought it was incredible that women could have power over men to make them loose up their hard-earned money in exchange for sex."