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CCU Atheneum: Kyle O'Neil and Rachel White work together on measurements.
Kyle O'Neil and Rachel White work together on measurements.

Archaeology: Getting to the root of the story

by Mona Prufer
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An archaeological dig is not for the faint of heart. It requires stamina, a tolerance for biting insects, an endurance for the South Carolina heat and humidity, and lots of patience for the tedium and redundancy of measurements and recordkeeping. But mostly, it calls for an intense love of history and desire to learn how people lived long ago.

David Palmer, assistant professor of history at Coastal Carolina University and archaeologist-in-residence at Brookgreen Gardens, is working with a handful of students on a Maymester field trip to uncover how and where slaves lived in the 19th century on a Waccamaw Neck plantation.

“I hope you brought bug spray,” is Palmer’s greeting to outsiders who visit the site where he and his students are digging. They are excavating a small section of land in the woods across from the goat enclosure where it is believed the slave village of Brookgreen Plantation might have been. They patiently dig square holes and bring up debris with a bucket augur from layers of soil strata. The dirt is sifted through a large screen, and students sometimes find artifacts like rusty handmade nails, pieces of pottery, fragments of brick and glass.

The four students, mostly history majors with archaeological and anthropological leanings, participated in all aspects of the dig, from excavating with trowels, shovels and brushes; to recovering and recording finds; to analyzing and processing artifacts in the laboratory.

“Most people wouldn’t get excited about finding a rusty old nail or a tiny glass bead, but to us, this is a big deal,” says Palmer, the first person to hold the James Michie Endowed Professorship chair at CCU, named for the late beloved professor who led archaeological digs at Brookgreen in the 1990s.

Brookgreen Gardens, a beautiful oasis of greenery and sculptural art located between Murrells Inlet and Myrtle Beach’s busy commerce, is a renowned tourist destination with lush gardens, a zoo and a butterfly pavilion, but it was once four working rice plantations, including Brookgreen Plantation, owned by Joshua John Ward. The richest man in America in 1850, Ward owned more than 1,000 slaves, workers whose labor built the area’s economy and contributed enormously to the culture of the Carolina lowcountry.

Brookgreen has always acknowledged the contribution made by the plantations’ slaves, but a great deal remains unknown about their day-to-day existence. Now there is a concerted effort to delve into that painful past and offer more information about the property’s beginnings for historical interpretation, according to Bob Jewell, president and CEO of the gardens.

For the students, though, this field school is an opportunity for hands-on experience, for practical application to put into use the methodology they have read about and talked about in class.

Rachel White, a junior history student with a minor in archaeology from Pittsburgh, Penn., was working in one of the square holes, clipping roots in preparation for taking a photo and making a measured drawing. The hole contained unearthed remnants of a post that might have been part of a pier or a porch.

“That’s exciting to an archaeologist,” says Palmer, who hopes to find another matching post site that would indicate a structure like a house.

“You can’t be in a classroom and discover new artifacts,” says Kyle O’Neil, an intelligence and national security studies major from Little River. “You can’t beat the hands-on experience.” This is O’Neil’s second field school; the first was in a 2015 Maymester course led by professor Carolyn Dillian of a prehistoric archaeological dig at the Anne Tilghman-Boyce Reserve on the Little River Neck overlooking Waties Island.

Palmer, who is directing the Brookgreen dig using past surveys with historical maps and a 1911 soil map, agrees that the experience is special and necessary for these students.

“It’s critically important,” he says. “We’re looking at the lives of enslaved peoples about whom there’s not much information in the historical documents. These students are not only earning course credit and learning methods, they’re actually doing something [to advance] that history and culture.”


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