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CCU Atheneum: David Palmer, Ph.D., holds the James L. Michie Endowed Professorship in Historical Archaeology at Coastal Carolina University. He will conduct a field school at Brookgreen Gardens during Maymester.
David Palmer, Ph.D., holds the James L. Michie Endowed Professorship in Historical Archaeology at Coastal Carolina University. He will conduct a field school at Brookgreen Gardens during Maymester.

Professor revives partnership between CCU and Brookgreen

by Caroline P. Rohr
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If you want to know where you’re going, it helps to know where you’ve been.

That’s what the Department of History at Coastal Carolina University is all about, as evident from the department’s webpage at “Experience the past. Understand the present. Prepare for your future.”

A revived archaeology partnership between the history department and Brookgreen Gardens will help students and faculty fulfill that creed through the creation of the James L. Michie Endowed Professorship in Historical Archaeology, which was filled July 2015 by David Palmer, Ph.D.

Palmer came to Coastal from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He received his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley, and his specialty is plantation archaeology. Among his plans to put that specialty to good use and to help CCU students experience the past is by operating a field school at Brookgreen Gardens’ Brookgreen Plantation during Maymester 2016.

Brookgreen Plantation is located near the Lowcountry Center at Brookgreen Gardens in a public-accessible location. Part of the gardens’ current five-year plan – in effect through 2021 – includes learning more about the site and updating the current exhibit, according to Brookgreen Gardens' CEO Bob Jewell.

A volunteer group, known as the Waccamaw Archaeology Partnership and led by Michie’s former research assistant Susan Hoffer McMillan, spent three years excavating the site of Brookgreen Plantation's slave village, which once held 50 cabins, according to McMillan. She worked with Michie at the Oaks Plantation at Brookgreen Gardens until his retirement from CCU in 1998.

Palmer plans to use 10 to 12 students as part of the field school and will bring in a few of those experienced volunteers to help. He will work on that site for the next several years before expanding to other plantations and doing comparative work.

“It’s a study of our history and it really gives us the opportunity to find out and interpret what happened on these plantations, the impact it had on all of our lives from a historical and economics standpoint,” Jewell said. “It will help that information be preserved in time and go on ad infinitum, and people will learn from it as life progresses.”

Palmer and McMillan are both excited about this revival of sorts taking place in archaeology in the region thanks to the professorship, and that excitement isn’t limited to just those two. Jewell said that zDan Ennis, dean of the Thomas W. and Robin W. Edwards College of Humanities and Fine Arts, and CCU President David A. DeCenzo have been terrific in keeping the energy alive as the professorship and the partnership have been established, a process that took years.

“We are extremely excited about CCU partnering with us, and we think it will benefit both of us and the community,” Jewell said. “All the history that will unveil itself will be the real treasure.”

Even faculty and staff are looking forward to the future.

“We have a lot of students who are really excited about [the field school],” said Carolyn Dillian, Ph.D., coordinator of the anthropology program at Coastal. “Members of the community will also be able to learn about archaeology and history through the programs and lectures that [Palmer] will offer. We’re really excited to have Dr. Palmer here at CCU.”

“It is so critical to have a historic archaeologist like David: There is much work to be done around here on historic sites,” said Amanda Brian, Ph.D., chair of the history department. “Since his specialty is plantation archaeology, he is poised to augment our knowledge about the history of plantations and the history of African-Americans both during and after slavery. These areas are critical for understanding the history of the United States, let alone the history of the South.”

The field school, and other hands-on initiatives Palmer has planned, is more than just digging up a site and finding artifacts, though both he and McMillan acknowledge that’s what can make it exciting for students.

“A field school is very much a hands-on kind of teaching and training, but it also carries out primary research,” Palmer said. “There are different goals, and you have to teach the students the proper way to do things and understand why it’s done that way. … When we are excavating a site, we are actually destroying the site, albeit very carefully and in a controlled and well-documented manner.”

“It tells us things about the past that were lost over time,” McMillan said. “It’s always a career option [for students] but it certainly broadens their horizons as to their place in history. When you go out and you do archaeology it makes you reflect on your place in life. … It’s very important to think beyond the knowledge that students are asked to learn to pass their exams, to get their grades. To take all of that and process it and put it all into perspective as far as your lifespan and what it means and your place in history.”

That broader perspective isn’t lost on students who have participated in field schools in the past. Dillian took eight students to a site in Horry County near Waites Island during Maymester 2015.

“It was a great experience,” Bryan Canter, an interdisciplinary studies major, said about that field school. “It helps you to develop an appreciation for how much detailed work it takes to document archaeological sites accurately because you only have one chance to get it right.”

It’s clear other students are of the same mind; the field school class was already filling up before the fall 2015 semester officially ended.

Students who complete studies in archaeology and/or anthropology aren’t just limited to digging up sites, Palmer and Brian both said. Students will be prepared for a future in fields such as museum docent, assistant archivist, cultural resource management and more. And heritage tourism is presently a rapidly growing industry, said Palmer, especially in this region.

“Increasingly, there is a lot of interest and money in heritage tourism. That’s something that is on the cusp of happening for this area, particularly for Georgetown,” he said.

Palmer’s plantation archaeology class for the spring semester was full before the fall semester ended. The last time a course on plantation archaeology was taught at CCU, he said, was when Michie was teaching it.

“I have yet to meet someone who didn’t have a glow when talking about [Jim Michie],” Palmer said. “I will do my utmost to honor his legacy of being a very public-oriented archaeologist.”

Michie was originally from the Marion area and earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of South Carolina and his master’s degree from the University of Tennessee. He joined the faculty at CCU in 1990 after working as an archaeologist for the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology at USC. He co-founded the Archaeological Society of South Carolina and was the associate director of the Waccamaw Center for Cultural and Historical Studies.

Some years after his death, friends of Michie established the endowed professorship at CCU in his name. He is often described as a wonderful storyteller and is given credit by multiple people for laying the foundation for the Center for Anthropology and Archaeology at CCU.

“The fact that a group of his former students and others who were inspired by him to create a position says a lot about who he was,” Palmer said.

The partnership between CCU and Brookgreen Gardens won’t end after Brookgreen’s current five-year strategic plan expires in 2021. Jewell said Palmer will be involved in formulating the Gardens’ next five-year plan and is excited to have Palmer’s academic perspective and years of experience on board.

“We hope to have this partnership for a long time,” Jewell said. “There’s no end to what we can do here. We’re studying human beings, what could be more interesting?”


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