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CCU Atheneum: Anthropologist Carolyn Dillian (center) works with students, using handmade tripods to sift through the buckets of dirt.
Anthropologist Carolyn Dillian (center) works with students, using handmade tripods to sift through the buckets of dirt.

Archaeology's first field school: Can you dig it?

by Corrie Lee Lacey
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Deer flies, mosquitoes, heat and humidity– they all come with the South Carolina territory. Students of CCU’s Summer Archaeology Field School learned firsthand that you must sometimes endure what’s above the ground in order to uncover the secrets below.

This summer, in the northern region of Georgetown County, an excavation team of Coastal Carolina University students gathered at the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge, just off U.S. 701 halfway between Georgetown and Conway. Shovels and trowels in hand, the group, led by archaeologists Cheryl Ward and Carolyn Dillian, broke the surface soil on a property known as Yauhannah Bluff, a land inhabited by Native Americans from prehistoric times until the mid 1600s.

As they scraped away layers of earth, the team quickly discovered the remains of what may have been a cabin of undetermined period – they believed it burned to the ground years ago. The group was looking for a 1715 trading post, but no certain signs were discovered. Uncovering pieces of melted glass and broken brick, the students began piecing together a clearer picture of life in the settlement beneath.

For the team, the project was an opportunity to experience history unfolding. The land yielded about 10 Native American artifacts including pieces of pottery.

But the students quickly learned there was a lot more to archaeology than just digging. They had to trudge through the thorny brush and thick grass to make their way across the terrain – boiling temperatures and an unsettled copperhead didn’t make things much easier.

The team of seven students joined Dillian and Ward for the field school, an opportunity to gain hands-on archaeological dig experience, from designing field surveys to digging test pits, conducting excavations and composing scholarly reports.

The field school began in early June with a dig on the Conway Riverwalk at the Kingston Presbyterian Church parking lot. There, students uncovered artifacts from a 19th-century government shipyard. The team found large lumps of naval stores (more commonly known as pine resin, a substance used to help seal the outside of hulls to increase resistance to decay and aid in waterproofing), sherds of glass and pottery, pieces of mortar and brick, as well as whole bricks, fragments of splintered wood, nails, oyster and clam shells, and even a small piece of rope.

The students then moved to the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge where they camped for almost four weeks, sleeping in tents and grilling out for dinner.

At the Refuge, the team set up 1m-by-1m units using nails, string and measuring tapes. For their first area, the students chose to set up a 5m-by-5m square, broken into 1m x 1m units, and set up screens to sift the dirt. Garden shears were used to cut away roots in order to reach the dirt below.

At other locations, ground penetrating radar (GPR) was used to locate anomalies beneath the surface of the earth, and red and orange flags were inserted to mark the artifacts scattered along the sites.

The group worked diligently – so diligently, in fact, that “we were told at least once that we should be taking more breaks, and some of us tried to keep going after being told it was time to stop for the day,” wrote Allison Variale on the field school blog. “It felt like the more we found, the more we wanted to find.”

During the second week, the students ventured to Murrells Inlet where they caught a boat ride with Capt. Richard Goldberg from Wacca Wache Marina to Sandy Island, another area known to have had Native American activity as well as a historic settlement. But a 40-acre search of the island only turned up a few fragments of prehistoric pottery.

So the group moved on to Bull Island to see an old tram that was used in the logging industry in the late 1880s to mid 1900s. Another 7:30 a.m. boat ride with Capt. Goldberg brought the team to a full engine and nine train cars – some still attached. Despite the occasional run-in with snakes and an approaching thunderstorm, the students learned to draw profile views of the abandoned train.

An open house was held on June 22 at the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge Visitor’s Center to share the field school’s findings with the public. Natives of Horry County showed up to share their stories about the area – tales passed down from ancestors over the years. Some people came to see if what they had been told for decades matched what the students were finding under years of forest growth.

With each artifact that was pulled from the earth, the students may have answered a question for visitors of the open house, but with each bucket of dirt came more questions from spectators. A face of a porcelain doll, a bead, a medicine bottle for whooping cough: what does it all mean?

The artifacts will be taken back to the lab for in depth study, where they will help researchers develop a timeline for the site.

“We are engaging the community in the kind of work that helps everyone learn about where we live,” says Ward. “It’s rewarding for the students of the field school, but it’s also rewarding to the people of this area because, on a small scale, it’s progress toward knowing the history and prehistory of this land.”

“This has been such a gratifying experience,” says Meghan Mumford, a senior history major. “With a little patience and a lot of curiosity, archaeology is an amazing tool to learn about the past. With projects like this, we can help educate people about the history of this area.”

On June 23, students began three days of intensive survey at The Oaks, the site of an antebellum rice plant on the Brookgreen Gardens property. The students walked a long embankment that separated the slave quarters from the plantation house. While investigating the remains of houses that once were part of the enslaved African quarters, they found broken bottles, brick, shell mortar, discarded clamshells and oyster shells, a few rusty nails, several pig teeth, and even a broken piece of a clay pipe stem.

A final week of excavation at the Refuge will be followed by a week’s work in the archaeology laboratory at CCU. The team returned to the lab at CCU after the July 4 weekend to study all of the artifacts found during the field school. They hope their findings will shed light on what the sites may have been like many years ago. Students will present their discoveries at the next public meeting of the Waccamaw Chapter of the Archaeological Society of South Carolina on July 13 at 7 p.m. at CCU’s Waccamaw Center for Higher Education in Litchfield.

Ward is currently working on the curriculum for CCU’s new archaeology program and developing plans for an anthropology minor. She plans to offer summer archaeology field schools in the future.

To learn more about the field school and read firsthand accounts of the students’ experiences, visit

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