Recovery of the CSS Georgia

Chris Caster reviews some lessons learned from Historian and Armstrong alum Michael Jordan’s latest documentary, “From Ironclad to Artifact:  The Journey of the CSS Georgia”.

Recovery of the CSS Georgia

I attended the Gray’s Reef Film Festival on February 10, 2018. Historian Michael Jordan’s film entitled “From Ironclad to Artifact:  The Journey of the CSS Georgia” was presented that evening in the Trustees Theater. This was an amazing venue with a lot of very excited people that made the evening a blast. Before the film, there was were some introductory remarks by historian and filmmaker, Michael Jordan. If you find the story of the CSS Georgia interesting, further information and the documentary itself can be accessed via the link below.


Archaeologists worked from this barge to recover the CSS Georgia. Professor Seifert took this picture from Old Fort Jackson during the “Raise the Wreck” Festival. Digging Savannah was a festival participant.

There are some lessons to be learned from the decades-long effort to recover and preserve the wreck of the CSS Georgia from the edge of the Savannah River.  Depending on the size of the site and materials to be recovered, many of these lessons can be applied to future archaeological work in the tidal marshes of coastal Georgia.

The first consideration is safety.  Working in the water at the edge of the marsh or digging in the marsh silt itself can be hazardous.  The clinging silt provides a significant challenge, making underwater visibility extremely low.   The archeologists had to deal with tidal surges that could easily sweep workers away from the site.  Underwater work can best be performed only near high or low tide when the waters are relatively still.  There is no stable land to support lifting equipment, so they had to work from boats.  When they were recovering large artifacts, they needed lifting equipment that was strong enough to pull the artifact out of the silt and lift a considerable weight of silt along with the weight of the artifact.

From the beginning, it is necessary to have adequate tools and technology to record the artifacts’ relative positions before they are moved from the site.  This is particularly difficult when the artifacts are embedded in soft mud or submerged in water where they cannot be seen easily.  As the site is excavated, the tidal surge moving against the remaining artifacts is likely to cause them to change position. This makes accurate recording of their initial positions relative to each other extremely important.

The salt marsh environment’s lack of oxygen is one reason many of these artifacts have been preserved.  Once the artifacts have been brought out of the riverbed, it is necessary to make immediate plans for their preservation or restoration.  Any artifacts that cannot be restored immediately should be stored in a low oxygen environment until they can be restored.  This is best accomplished by wrapping and labeling them, then burying them underwater in a well-marked and easily accessible location.

The restoration process for most metal artifacts involves first removing any surface accretions.  Then conservators use electrolysis to restore the surface chemistry of the artifact.  Over a period of a few weeks up to several months, the electrolysis process gradually leaches away surface impurities and repairs some of the corrosion on the surface of the artifact.  After electrolysis, the object can be further preserved by applying an epoxy surface coating.


Armstrong students fieldtripped to the CSS Georgia conservation lab on Hutchinson Island. On the far right is Jim Jobling, the Texas A&M conservator. Foreground is some of the many buckets containing artifacts submerged in river water awaiting conservation. (Photo credit: Laura Seifert)

In the case of the CSS Georgia, a large amount of ordnance was recovered – cannonballs and various shells that might still contain explosive charges.  Defusing such items and rendering them harmless requires skills of military bomb disposal technicians.  Anytime such items are found in a dig it is necessary to leave them undisturbed and wait for professional assistance to handle them safely.

Artifacts made of wood are much more difficult to recover and preserve.  A variety of worms and microorganisms will tend to bore into and eat away at the wood.  The surface texture of the wood along with its structural integrity will deteriorate over time.  In the case of the CSS Georgia, most of the wood recovered had been attached to the iron armor, which supplied support for the wood during the recovery operations.


Shackles found on the CSS Georgia. Conditions on the ironclad would have been miserable, especially at the height of summer. These might have been used to punish sailors who broke rules. Reproduction shackles can be seen in the upper left corner. This photo was also taken on the October 2015 student fieldtrip to the conservation lab. (Photo credit: Laura Seifert)

One final lesson that can be learned from this story is that responsible development can be a friend to archaeology. The motivation and the funding for the recovery of the CSS Georgia came from the project to widen and deepen the Savannah River shipping channel.  Although the location of the wreck had been known for many years, funding to remove and preserve it had not become available.  Only when the harbor deepening project made its removal necessary could the project receive the necessary funding and support.

See the documentary!

From Ironclad to Artifact:  The Journey of the CSS Georgia



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Artifacts Impacting Archaeology

I am pleased to present our third student series of blog posts. We have a very big class this semester, so we’ll be traveling a little farther afield for some of our topics, but I think many will tie back to Savannah in small and big ways. Up first is Alexander Vandegrift, writing about battlefield archaeology and its effects.

Artifacts Impacting Archaeology

When many think of archaeology, they think of those who still preside around Egyptian tombs, or those who dig upon hundreds to thousands of years of history. But, many neglect those who dig in the strata of the recent past, such as battlefields. If it was not for archaeology, we would not have The Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers, where archaeologists and patriotic volunteers have dug battlefields to find missing in action military personnel. Just recently in 2015, 36 Marines that were presumed killed in action were found on a Pacific Island near where the Battle of Tarawa occurred, and were returned home to receive an honorable burial. But, for those who dig in the remnants of the Vietnam war, still face battlefield dangers.

I have always respected those who still approach historical battlefields to find artifacts, historical anomalies from what we have theorized, and still missing-in-action personnel. But, with the number of battlefields created in the recent past, specifically Civil War era to Vietnam era, one would have never of thought of the dangers that could still be present to archaeologists.

With the production of artillery rounds, and other ordnance during war time, not all weapons and ammo are stamped as “safe and ready to use”. This leads to unexploded ordnance lying dormant for years within the strata of the Earth until disturbed accidentally by someone or something putting weight upon the area, or moving soil to recover an artifact. Many of these “duds” still cause damage today because of the eroding black powder or materials within the bombs become unstable. Some have lead to deaths, while others lead to serious injury.

One of the many reasons this happens is because logs, counts, and mapping of minefields can be rare or records are lost during war time. With the rise of insurgency and guerilla warfare tactics, many mines or IEDs during the past were merely placed and forgotten about, only with the hope that it would hit its mark. In fact, there are still regions within the world, predominantly Cambodia and Vietnam (excluding the Middle East since it is a still active war zone), where certain areas are secured off from the public because of the dangers of unexploded or still active mines.

Now, this does not mean that you can always find unexploded ordnance in battlefields, but it is possible anywhere within the world that has had contact with the making, transporting, or history of having explosives for any reason. Per example, in November of 2016 an unexploded cannonball was found near Broughton and Barr streets by a group who was doing an excavation in the area. Luckily, Fort Stewart Army EOD and Savannah Chatham Police Bomb Squad conducted a controlled explosion within the site, while being viewed from an aerial position by Helicopter Eagle 1, to ensure citizens were not within the vicinity. The bomb site and controlled explosion resulted in zero casualties.

This speaks volumes. When a military unit or insurgency operates within an area, they need to keep maps and counts of all mines that are placed, as well as retrieve with full counts after war time. When dealing with instances such as Savannah’s, one must be careful and have keener senses when one notices something unusual within the site you are digging. When situations are carried out correctly and carefully, life can be preserved and chance of injury can be nonexistent. Those who were digging within the area that found the cannonball made the right decisions by backing away and calling the right units to handle such a situation.


Sources and for more information:








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Archaeology at the Library Nov. 13

Who: Laura Seifert, Armstrong Archaeologist and Digging Savannah Director

When: Nov. 13th at 5:30pm

Where: Islands Branch, Live Oak Public Library

What: Hear about the archaeology at the Benedictine Monastery and Freedmen School on Skidaway Island! My students and I have spent the past two years excavating the site and doing historical research. We are recovering pieces of the buildings and artifacts that the monks and students left behind such as medicine bottles, writing slate fragments, and harmonica fragments. While the monks left archival records in the form of documents, the African-American students left very few documents. We can learn about their lives (and the monks as well) in the archaeological record.

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Sorrel-Weed House: Part II

Kelly Westfield shares Sorrel-Weed House Archaeological Study: Part II in our next student blog post. Her original post can be found here from last semester.

This past September, we wrapped up our second round of excavations in the basement of the Sorrel-Weed carriage house. Unlike the first phase of our study, we were able to finish up over the course of one weekend, rather than spending four weekends in the field as we did in the spring. This was too our benefit for several reasons, not least of which was the humidity we were tackling in our underground workspace! We excavated two additional test units this time around. Test Unit 2 included the remaining portion of Test Unit 1’s pit feature found in the spring (perhaps we should call this the “coal-hole” due to the copious amounts of coal we recovered!), and in Test Unit 3, we excavated the northeast corner of the basement floor in an effort to locate builder’s trenches. The results of the study will be compiled into the original report (posted on Digging Savannah last spring, and with Professor Seifert’s guiding hand, hopefully again this fall), and a copy of the final report will be available in the permanent collection of Armstrong’s Lane Library sometime later this year. The results will also be presented at the Society for Historical Archaeology Conference in January of 2018. I am also very excited to say that a portion of the report will be published in book format sometime next year.


Excavating the second half of the “coal-hole”, likely a late 19th century trash pit.

But what kind of a blogger would I be if I didn’t tell you some of the highlights from the study? Not a very thoughtful one I would suspect. So here goes. For those of you out there still clinging to the possibility that we may have found an intact skeleton, possibly providing palpable, and I might add, horrific evidence to support the infidelity-suicide-murder-cover-up plot, we are three test units deep (pun intended) and have yet to find any human remains. The suspicious depression in the carriage house basement floor was the result of a deep pit (the “coal-hole”). The feature contained a motley assemblage of artifacts, including animal bones (lots of them!)  ceramics (from utilitarian to high style), glass bottle sherds, a seemingly endless assortment of heavily corroded metal artifacts, and a curious piece of jewelry that has yet to be identified. A piece of a pharmaceutical bottle recovered from Test Unit 2 and embossed with the words “hyp—-” is an exciting new lead. With further research and the identification of this artifact, we may be able to nail-down additional dates and perhaps learn something more about illness and early medicinal practices in Savannah.


Metal artifacts recovered from the “coal-hole”. The smaller piece was recovered on top of the larger piece. It is possibly a pulley or large caster wheel.

Although we hoped to learn about the experiences of the enslaved individuals who were said to have once occupied this space, the artifacts recovered cannot be tied to Black lifeways or culture. These results are further complicated by the background research for this study, which does not establish the carriage house as an antebellum structure. The most promising lead that may speak of enslaved lifeways are perhaps the animal bones recovered, many of which contain butcher marks. If these can be dated and are antebellum faunal remains, they may tell us information about the foodways of the enslaved at the site. Even more interesting, the faunal remains may tell us more about the influences of Haitian foodways and culture in Savannah. Francis Sorrel was born in Haiti and lived on the island until he was a young adult. A search of the Laurel Grove South Interment Records at the City of Savannah Research and Municipal Archives shows that one of Francis Sorrel’s young bondwoman, Matilda Daois, was interred at Laurel Grove South on November 28, 1855 after dying of consumption. Daois is a surname that perhaps speaks of Creole or French origin. Overall, the artifacts recovered provide numerous opportunities for further research. I look forward to seeing these future studies and hope that I may be able to contribute at a later date.

Did I mention that I found a young woman named Molly owned by Francis Sorrel, sent by steamship to New York City in 1855? While this is far from validating the tale of her tragic fate just five years later, it does show that there was a woman named Molly who once lived at the Sorrel-Weed House. What was her life really like, and what other narratives can we derive from research about her and her fellow bondpeople to incorporate into the telling of Savannah’s history? Molly was far from being the only slave who lived and worked at the Sorrel-Weed House, and their stories, like hers, are about much more than tragedy and death. I hope to one day return to the enslaved history of the Sorrel-Weed House and focus research efforts on deriving these narratives. In the meantime, I challenge you (yes you!) to invest your research and academic efforts into shedding light on the untold number of enslaved lives that have come and gone in Savannah and help to incorporate their stories into the city’s tourism landscape.


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Importance of Electrolysis

Next in our student series is Robert (Austin) Masters. He writes about his project conserving iron artifacts through electrolysis.

Importance of Electrolysis

Last semester I was fortunate to take Professor Seifert’s Historical Archaeology class at Armstrong State University and participated in digs at the Benedictine Monastery and Freedmen School site and the Sorrel Weed House. When I first registered, I was not sure if I would enjoy the class. After the first couple of classes and digs, I knew that I was interested in archaeology and wanted to do more.

At the very end of last semester, John Roberson, our consultant, set up an electrolysis system in the anthropology lab. The main reason that we perform electrolysis is to preserve metal artifacts. This process stops the oxidation in the artifact. Once we had the machine up and running, I wanted to help preserve some of the iron artifacts discovered at the Benedictine Monastery and Freedmen School site and the Sorrel-Weed House. These items include possible door hardware, a piece of a knife, springs from a mattress, and other iron objects. I am doing this project because preservation of artifacts is something that has interested me, and without the use of electrolysis, iron artifacts will continue to rust and will eventually turn into dust. By preserving these artifacts, it will allow us to study them and understand what they were used for and how they were used in the past.


Robert adds the sodium carbonate to the electrolysis system.

Electrolysis is used to preserve metal artifacts that have exposed to salt, either in the water or in the air. In simple terms, electrolysis is an oxidation reduction reaction. In the Armstrong lab, we have a simple plastic tank that can be found at many hardware stores. The tank contains the artifacts, which are connected to the negative side of the power source. The anode, which is a piece of iron rebar, is connected to the positive side of the power source. Both the rebar and artifacts are in a bath of electrolytes (water and Sodium Carbonate, Na2CO3). The length of time artifacts stay in the tank depends on the size and corrosion of the artifacts. Smaller artifacts may only stay in the tank for few weeks, while a cannon could take months to years to ensure the preservation of the artifact. Once the electrolysis is complete, the artifact is coated in epoxy to form a barrier between the artifact and oxygen. After electrolysis and coating, the artifact can either be placed on display in a museum or placed in a depository for further research down the road.


Iron artifact prior to conservation

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Hauntings in the Hostess City

Armstrong archaeology student Amelia Lux, a former walking tour guide, draws from her experiences at the Sorrel-Weed House to highlight the role archaeology plays in uncovering the Hostess City’s haunted history.

Hauntings in the Hostess City

As a tour guide in the historic district for three and a half months last summer (it turns out I wasn’t cut out for the heat, the walking, or all of the Forest Gump questions) I learned my fair share about Savannah’s charms and mysteries. I specialized in walking tours covering the general history of the city (yes, it was Georgia’s first city), the Civil War (yes, it was that Sherman), and the stories of ghosts that still linger here (well, no, I’ve never seen one personally… but!).

Savannah is home to a rich history, a flourishing culture, and some of the most beautiful sites the eye can behold. That’s not to say the city is without an ugly side; stories of deceit and betrayal, of crime and passion, and of lust, love, and murder swirl through the Spanish Moss-covered oaks in Wright Square, rise from the graves at Colonial Park cemetery, and peer from the upstairs balcony window of 432 Abercorn Street. Of all of the city’s ghostly tales, by far, the tour groups begged to hear most, was the story of the Sorrel-Weed House.

Legend has it (and by legend, I mean my 62-year-old tour mentor Willy) that the home was built in the mid-19th century by a wealthy plantation owner named Francis Sorrel. After the death of his wife, Lucinda, he married her younger sister, Matilda. Neither marriage was enough for Francis, whose heart belonged to one of his slaves, Molly. During the home’s construction, Francis requested a special carriage home for Molly, where the two could consummate their love under the veil of night. After the home’s completion, Matilda caught the pair together from the third story balcony, where she jumped to her death, shattering her skull on a large stone left from the build. Several weeks later, Francis’ lover Molly was found hanged in her room, where the two had solidified their love. Her death was ruled a suicide, though the suspicion of murder hung in the air.

While there is no way to re-piece the exact events from that night, archeology allows us to try. Currently, we are in the midst of a dig in the carriage house basement— the first-ever project of its kind to take place in the home. Last weekend I joined several of my peers in the excavation process. Though not many artifacts were found, a piece of porcelain and several iron pieces were collected. Additionally, we recorded the various measurements of our unit, and took several photographs detailing its stratigraphy, which could help corroborate the home’s haunted history, or reject it altogether.

Coming equipped with an expectation to see shadowy figures and hear faint cries for help, the day proved to be especially interesting for me. While I made a point to avoid being alone in the basement, nothing out of the ordinary was seen or heard. The experience did, however, alter my perception of the tourism industry in the city.

So much money is made by exploiting these homes for their history. We would be doing ourselves, and our visiting friends, a great service by performing digs at some of the city’s “most haunted” places in an effort to uncover the past, and, by giving a voice to the characters whose stories we love to tell, and retell, time and time again.

At the end of the day, I left with dirt on my shoes, (and, somehow in both my hair, and pants) as well as a new outlook on archaeology. I had spent my morning sifting through fresh dug-dirt, examining clumps of iron and coal, differentiating between the various layers of soil we’d uncovered, and trying to piece together what it all meant—before re-filling the unit (which I learned, is a crucial, and awful part of the process!) While we can expect lab results within a few weeks, the project is on-going, meaning I’ll have plenty of chances to go back and uncover more of what makes not only the Sorrel-Weed House so special, but also the sweet, southern city we call home.

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Op-Ed: Monumental History

Next in our student series, Logan Woods writes an opinion piece on Confederate Monuments, renaming “our” bridge, and how we need to memorialize history.

Op-Ed: Monumental History

Is it necessary to glorify our history in order to preserve it? In the modern political climate it is easy to find examples of history being ignored or erased. Recently, the news has been fueling a movement to remove Civil War era monuments. More specifically, it is Confederate monuments that are being or removed. Today we find historical sites and monuments being challenged. In the past if you didn’t like a monument you didn’t visit it. Currently, the trend is to have it destroyed.

If the primus for the argument is controversial monuments should not be funded by tax dollars, and we can accept that the government should not fund anything controversial, then yes, funding should be withdrawn. The funding is not truly the issue, however, because rather than allowing the states to sell off or privatize the sites, the goal is to erase them from history.

Politicians have also attempted to capitalize on the trend. To gain favor with potential voters, Georgia Gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams is currently calling for the removal of the reliefs of Stone Mountain. The logic that the reliefs should be removed because they represent men that supported slavery can then be applied to Mt. Rushmore, any monument to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin or any other Founding Father. Their faces should then be removed from money, public spaces and any government buildings.

Not to be hypocritical, we must remember that the city of Savannah was pro-slavery and benefited from the practice. Following the logic of removing pro-slavery sites we are then obligated to tear down the Cotton Exchange and most of River Street, Wormsloe and Lebanon Plantation, Ft. Pulaski, the Davenport House, and most of the larger houses on Victory Dr. We can then dig up all of the town squares and cemeteries and pull up all of the railroad tracks that brought plantation goods from all over the state.

The bridge named after the racist Democratic governor Eugene Talmadge needs to be renamed, but the proposed name “The Savannah Bridge” is not appropriate. The name Savannah came from a name for the Shawnee, who invaded the area in the 1680’s, killing off the local tribes. Unlike Governor Talmadge, they did own slaves, thus making our city named after people that were pro slavery. Keeping with this logic still, we can rename our city and any of its streets and neighborhoods that have local Native Americans names. Since the Yamacraw were Creek, and Creek owned slaves, we need to rename Yamacraw Village too.

Any further funding to any archeological sites in Chatham County should be stopped and no government money should be allocated to any historical sites that were established prior to 1955. Any politician that supports preserving such sites should be labeled as pro-slavery. Finally, any books, movies or artifacts that mention anyone that benefited from slavery should be gathered in a pile and burned. Then we can pretend that there is nothing ugly in our past.

Unfortunately, when our children ask what the “Civil Rights Struggle” struggled against, who’s going to know? Who will know how far we’ve come? Or maybe we remember our past, but for what it is, in the context of what we’ve overcome as a nation.

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Discovering Archaeology

Our next student blogger is Nicole Wentz, who discusses her discovery of anthropology and archaeology during her college career.

I never really thought about what interested me until I actually came face to face with college and the “bigger picture”. I’d always been told I had a knack for drawing and assumed I’d just become an artist, simple as that. But did I really want to be told what to draw for the rest of my life? It was whilst pondering this question, slumped over on my parents’ couch, my mother made the offhand comment. “No, you know what you want to do? You want to be an archeologist. Like Josh Gates.” Josh gates just so happens to be the host of a few shows my mother and I used to love watching together: Destination Truth and Expedition Unknown.

Those words hit me like a sack of brick and all my thoughts came to a halt. Archaeology had never even crossed my mind. I enrolled in an Introduction to Anthropology class. It only fueled my growing curiosity and amazement. After spending almost 19 years filling my head with colors and shapes and lines, I felt as if I knew everything about art, that there was nothing left to teach me. My anthropology class did a complete 360° turn on my knowledge and suddenly I didn’t know anything. Everything was knew and everything amazed me. Now I know that despite common misconception, the cave man never existed and perhaps Homo sapiens did not arrive in the Americas from across the land bridge like I was previously taught in high school.

Next, I hopped right into Archaeology of the Southeast and immediately was intimidated. Everyone in the class seems to know so much more in this area of study, so I felt lost and very behind. Despite this, I wanted the experience and more importantly I wanted to know. I took the opportunity to participate in field work at both the Monastery site and the Sorrel-Weed House.

In Seifert’s Archaeology class, I’m getting to learn a deeper view of how people came to the Americas and how nomadic people developed into groups with diverse languages and complex social structures and evolved into civilizations like there are today. It’s incredible to think about how Pre-Clovis Native Americans created tools out of nothing but chert! Technology was built up from almost virtually nothing. Nothing but rock. Would you be able to have come up with the idea of striking rock to create something that had previously never existed before?

As I’m taking this class, I can’t help but find connections between all my classes that help a general understanding of history fall into place in my mind, instead of it being a jumbled mess of dates and events. I’m coming to understand how humans evolved and how many contributors are involved to get humanity to where it’s at today. Archaeology of the Southeast, Civilization 1, and Art History have all shown me how mind-blowing the development of early language and social structure is, along with upgrading technology and creating art and architecture. Really, it’s all so incredible!

In the field work, I’m getting a chance to rediscover history personally. This class has opened up a whole new set of opportunities. It’s all so very exciting, and there’s still a lot more to learn. History is always changing as archaeologists, anthropologists, and many more continue to ask how, why, when, and where. There’s much in this field of study that is still unknown, and so the people within this field continue to search for the answers.

So many people find history to be boring and not an area of interest that often times archaeology is completely overlooked as a subject, as I had at first. This is really such a shame as in reality this field of study is so important with ongoing projects all over the world. Professor Seifert’s attempts at spreading public awareness locally ought to be applauded and hopefully Digging Savannah will lead to support so one day Savannah will be more involved in archaeological matters, as this city has such a rich history waiting to be rediscovered and explored.

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Archaeology at an Aquarium?

Next up in our second student series is Rebecca Hinely, who loves taking her kids on field trips. This week she was surprised to find archaeology in an aquarium.

Archaeology at an Aquarium??

I took my children to visit the UGA Marine Education Center and Aquarium and was pleasantly surprised. Not only do they have a beautiful array of marine animals but they also have a section dedicated to archaeology of the Grove’s Creek area.
It was known that Native Americans inhabited the area but there was very little visible evidence. In 1986 Larry Babits, a local* archaeologist, began excavating Grove’s Creek hoping to find evidence of the wattle and daub construction that was used. Not only did he find what he was looking for, but he found many other interesting artifacts as well. These artifacts were curated, and some were set out for display at the aquarium.
Along the wall when you first enter sits a display of Native American artifacts ranging from tobacco pipes to Irene pottery dated between 1300AD and 1550AD. Some of the pottery is in such good condition you can clearly see the complicated stamped design on the outside. Several pieces even had the Filfot Cross design that was popular during this cultural period.
On the opposite wall is a fossilized Atlantic gray whale mandible that was found on JY Reef just off the coast of Georgia. This mandible was carbon dated to be approximately 41,000 years old. The display thoroughly explains the process of excavating underwater and how the mandible was dated, stored, and reassembled.
Thanks to these archaeologists (and their student helpers) we are able to understand our past a little better, and thanks to the UGA Marine Education Center and Aquarium, we are able to physically see it.

*Editor’s Note: Larry Babits was an Armstrong professor when conducting these digs. He is currently Professor Emeritus at East Carolina University.

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Historic Darien & McIntosh County

I have been extremely remiss about posting this semester’s student blog posts! First in this series is Kris Rice, who recommending many interesting ways to learn about archaeology and history in McIntosh County.

If you’re willing to venture a little farther than Chatham County for a taste of Georgia history and archaeology, plan a visit to McIntosh County—about an hour south of Savannah on I-95, or slightly more on US 17.

On the high bluffs of the Darien River, where a Guale Indian village, and subsequently, a Spanish mission, once stood, the British built Fort King George as a fortification against French and Spanish incursions in 1721.  The original fort burned in 1725, but has been meticulously reconstructed, including officers’ quarters, surgeon’s office, soldiers’ lodging and mess, blacksmith shop, and block house (an ammunition storage and defense structure).

395002-1289578 - Carol Rice - Sep 15, 2017 1116 AM - #1 Block house

Fort King George blockhouse

A reconstructed wattle and daub hut, utilizing Guale building technology of vines and mud, is also on the grounds. Historic reenactments take place every first Saturday and on major holidays, thanks to the fort’s small but hard-working staff and corps of volunteers.  They also offer periodic kayak tours and provide paddling instruction in the river that fronts the fort.

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Wattle and daub cottage

The visitors’ center (9am-5pm, Tues.-Sun.) contains a small exhibit on the Guale, the history of the fort, and the sawmill industry, which once made Darien a thriving hub of commerce.  Impressive finds made during a 1952 dig are on display: several finely-detailed pottery sherds, projectile points, part of a dugout canoe, and a few nearly complete bowls, one of which was found with a number of tiny burnt corn cobs still intact inside.

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corn cobs in Native American pottery in the Fort King George museum. These cobs were preserved because they were burned.

Unfortunately, the 1994 exhibit has never been updated and fails to provide context or provenance for the objects, which are simply identified as “Indian pottery.” (Perhaps attempting to identify and describe the artifacts would be a possible future project for an enterprising archaeology student?)

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“Indian pottery” display at Fort King George

A self-playing 10-minute video dates to 1994, and is also in need of updating, although the prints by 18th century French artist and cartographer Jacques LeMoyne, who sketched the Timucuan people of coastal GA and northern FL, add some perspective to the video and exhibit.

Most of the City of Darien was burned by Union forces in 1863, so there are few historic buildings left in the downtown.  Those that remain include the First African Baptist Church at 500 Market Street.  Founded in 1822 and built in 1834, the church was burned in Sherman’s March, then rebuilt on the same site after the Civil War in 1868. Self-guided tours are available.

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First African Baptist Church, Darien, Georgia

On the downtown waterfront are 19th century tabby ruins and the oldest commercial building still remaining in Darien—the Adam-Strain building on First Street.   A once-thriving cotton warehouse and ship chandlery built between 1813 and 1815, the structure has long been empty and abandoned.

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Tabby ruins at the Adam-Strain building in Darien, Georgia

Across the Darien River, south of town on US 17, is Butler Island.  Now part of the Altamaha Waterfowl Management Area, it was a rice plantation constructed by Major Pierce Butler—or rather, by his many slaves–in the 1790s, then passed to his grandson, also Pierce Butler, at his death in 1822.  (Pierce the elder was born in Ireland, and despite ostensible reservations about slavery and the slave trade, never freed his own slaves and introduced the loathsome Fugitive Slave Clause to the U.S. Constitution.)

The grandson brought his bride, Fanny Kemble, a well-known actress of the time, to live there, but Fanny hated the place and in particular, the cruel treatment of enslaved people by her husband’s overseer, Roswell King Jr.  (King subsequently moved to north Georgia, and founded the town of Roswell.)  Fanny returned to her native England and published “Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, 1838-9,” credited with preventing Britain from entering into a treaty with the Confederacy, and wakening many to the evils of slavery.

That evil provides a tragic connection between Darien and Savannah.  After major financial losses, Butler sold 439 human beings in 1859 near what is now Brock Elementary School.  The largest sale of enslaved people ever in the U.S., it was known as the “Weeping Time”—not only for the tears shed by the families who were destroyed, but by the sky itself, which wept bitter tears of rain on Savannah that day.

Of the Butler Plantation, only the rice mill and smoke stack remain, but the dairy and a two-story residence built in 1927 by T.L. Huston, half owner of the New York Yankees, also still stand.  Drive down into the former rice fields to see bald eagles, a variety of herons, and the occasional roseate spoonbill or wood stork.

Part of another plantation owner’s property survives on Hwy 99, just north of Darien.  Ashantilly,  known also as “Old Tabby,”  was built in 1820 as the mainland home of Thomas Spalding, part owner of nearby Sapelo Island’s Chocolate Plantation, and a wealthy cotton planter who introduced sugar cane and sugar manufacturing to Georgia. The house was named for Ashantilly Castle, the family’s ancestral home in Scotland.  Subsequent owners made changes to the exterior, and the house was gutted by fire in 1937.  The owner at the time, William Haynes, a small letterpress printer, artist, and environmentalist, established the Ashantilly Press on the property.  It survives, and still produces small press notecards and other items.  Donated by the family, the site is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

395002-1289578 - Carol Rice - Sep 15, 2017 1116 AM - #7 Ashantilly


Ashantilly hosts historic, educational, and cultural events, as well as artists in residence and the annual fall sale of native plants.  Spalding’s dour portrait hangs in the former dining room, where dedicated volunteers provide complimentary (and delicious!) homemade refreshments during public events.

A day trip to Sapelo Island, off the coast of north McIntosh County, is another great option.  Catch the ferry at the Meridian dock, 1766 Landing Rd SE, off Hwy 99.  The ferry leaves at 8:30 am, M-F, and 9 am on weekends, but plan to be there at least half an hour in advance, especially on weekends or holidays, as tickets are first come, first served.  Cost is $15 round-trip, cash or check only.

If you book a tour of the island in advance, you’ll be met at the Sapelo dock by an ancient school bus, driven by a member of the historic African-American community of Hog Hammock.  Community members are descendants of the enslaved people on Thomas Spalding’s plantation. Spaulding bought the south end of the island in 1802.

The plantation house is now known as the Reynolds Mansion, having been renovated by Detroit auto magnate Howard Coffin in the 1920s, and again by Richard J. Reynolds, Jr., the tobacco heir, who bought most of the island in 1934. Reynolds endowed research and preservation on the island, and his widow sold their holdings to the state after his death.  The mansion, with numerous murals and marble sculptures, as well as the famous “circus room,” is open for tours with advance booking.  Your local guide will also show you the wild and beautiful Nanny Goat Beach, Hog Hammock community, island lighthouse, and UGA’s Marine Institute.

Less frequently-offered, but perhaps more interesting for archaeology students, is the tour of the island’s north end, featuring the Chocolate Plantation (actually the remains of tabby slave cabins and a 1920s barn built by Howard Coffin) and the once-huge Sapelo shell rings, middens left by the Guale people more than 4,000 years ago.  A full day trip of the north end, led by DNR naturalists, is next scheduled for Sat. Nov. 11 at 9 am.  Cost is $40 for the full day tour.  Bring bug spray, water, and lunch or heavy snacks, as there are few public facilities and no restaurants on the island.

395002-1289578 - Carol Rice - Sep 15, 2017 1116 AM - #8 tabby cabin

Tabby cabin on Sapelo Island, part of Chocolate Plantation


395002-1289578 - Carol Rice - Sep 15, 2017 1116 AM - #9 Sapelo shell mound

Shell mound on Sapelo Island

McIntosh County is definitely worth a day trip for those who would like to learn more about the history of coastal Georgia beyond the confines of our own historic city.  For more information on Darien and McIntosh County, Buddy Sullivan, former director of the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve, is a wealth of knowledge.


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