Posts Tagged With: Savannah

The Dirt on Archaeology

To celebrate the last day of classes (unless you are an unfortunate soul with Friday classes), we have another student blog post. JC Jones gives us the Dirt on Archaeology.

That’s right we’re talking about the dirt, or more appropriately soil. Specifically the layers of the soil. Its most commonly associated with the passage of time. Different layers in the ground are slowly deposited over time, and eventually this leads to distinct layers. When I was working at the Benedictine Monastery and Freedmen’s School site, usually the soil was differing shades of gray. It was bland and somewhat disappointing to be honest. In class we heard about how cool stratigraphy could be, and then we finally go out to dig and there is barely any difference.

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Test Unit 5 at the Benedictine Monastery and Freedmen’s School showing subtle changes in stratigraphy, or layers of soil and rock.

Then I got the opportunity to participate in a dig at the Sorrel Weed House, and this showed me the second and more useful side to stratigraphy, features! We were working in the carriage house basement, and we had to remove a brick floor to get to the soil layers. Once that was done a major difference in the soil could be seen. Most of the soil was the same color, but to one side of the test pit was a large black semicircle. Basically someone in the past had dug a hole and filled it in again. It’s a fairly simple task, but being able to see that decades later is amazing. Then as we started digging down further, the soil had other changes, and the excavation was done using natural layers. Every dig I’ve ever done has been based on arbitrary levels since there was little variation in the soil, but this was different. These different features and layers had me pondering on how they were created. What did people do to cause this change in the soil, or is this natural? This experience has opened up a whole new area of archaeological investigation to me. I’ll never underappreciate the color of soil again.

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Completed test unit at the Sorrel-Weed House, showing more dramatic soil layers and features.

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The Sorrel-Weed House: Reinterpreting Savannah’s Antebellum History

Next in our student series is Kelly Westfield, who is leading our excavations at the Sorrel-Weed House.

The Sorrel-Weed House is a Greek-Revival mansion located at the corner of Harris and Bull Streets in downtown Savannah. The home, which towers over the northwest portion of Madison Square, was built for Francis Sorrel by Charles B. Cluskey and was completed about 1841. As the grandeur of the home suggests, with its three generous stories, multiple verandahs, elaborate ceiling medallions, and copious iron work, it was built for one of Savannah’s elite during a prosperous era in the city’s history, made possible largely by agriculture and slave labor. Francis Sorrel was a wealthy merchant and cotton factor, and like many of his contemporaries, a slave owner. The detached living quarters and former carriage house that sit directly behind the home are a living reminder of this. Built in the stately house’s shadow just a short distance across a narrow garden, the carriage house was likely where many of the home’s former slaves lived and worked.

Desirous of getting some hands-on experience in the field in my Historical Archaeology class this semester, I met with Professor Seifert to discuss possible projects. My interest was timed perfectly; the Sorrel-Weed House staff had just recently approached Professor Seifert about conducting an archaeological study in the basement of the carriage house to uncover the source of a curious depression in the floor. It was decided in January that we would dig one test unit in the basement, and over the course of four weekends between February and March, thanks to the generous help and expertise of my fellow classmates and Professor Seifert, we completed the first official archaeological excavation ever undertaken at the Sorrel-Weed Home. We are currently still processing the artifacts and other data, and a report will be forthcoming in April.

The Sorrel-Weed House currently operates as a “must-see” site in Savannah’s ghost tour industry. In fact—it’s probably better described as the must-see site for paranormal activity, notorious not just in Savannah but in the Southern United States. Sorrel family oral tradition describes tragic events, which are the foundation of the site’s public interpretation programs, are believed to hold the answers to these hauntings, and, it was theorized, to the cause the depression in the carriage house basement floor. As the story goes, Francis Sorrel’s wife was overcome by the grief of her husband’s affair with one of his slaves. In her despair, she took her own life by leaping from the home’s third floor balcony. Her death was followed shortly thereafter by that of the slave, Francis Sorrel’s ‘mistress’, found hung in the upper level of the carriage house, and as it is rumored, not by her own hand. For reasons that can only be guessed at, it was thought that the unfortunate slave was then interred underneath the basement floor.

We were guided by two notions going into this project. First, it was unlikely, and would be nothing short of extraordinary, that we would find human remains. Secondly, this was potentially a great opportunity to learn more about urban slavery in Savannah. As we had predicted, our excavations did not uncover any human remains, but we did discover the cause of the depression: a long, deep, subfloor pit. Our test unit did not run the length of the feature, but we hope to return in an upcoming semester and trowel our way through its remaining portion.

Although we did not find any artifacts to corroborate the tragic oral tradition about the Sorrel family, the story unequivocally illustrates pervasive and profound experiences in Savannah’s past. I would be lying if I said I came to this realization right away; for certain, the allure of the stately home and the sheer opportunity we were given preoccupied me from understanding the bigger picture. No doubt, my experience mirrors that of many visitors to the Sorrel-Weed House. But as I buried myself in research, I realized that even if we did not find any artifacts to corroborate the unfortunate events in the home’s history, the oral tradition and the site’s interpretation program have major implications for several painful realities in Savannah’s history. Sexual exploitation by slave owners, unilateral extramarital affairs, oppressive gender codes, and brutality towards slaves, including what would today be considered murder, were legion in the Antebellum South. These historical realities transcend ghost stories and the mystique of Antebellum mansions, and they are facets of our history that archaeology has the potential to teach us more about.

The Sorrel-Weed House project and the class itself has made me more culturally aware, and by doing so has fulfilled one of the most valuable goals of archaeological studies. More importantly, my experience is one that can occur on a larger level; when projects like ours continue to be undertaken and are open to the public, they have the ability to impart a larger cultural awareness within the community. When I imagine the experiences of the women in the Home’s oral tradition, and think about how I might have managed in their positions, I feel sadness and compassion for them, and the countless others who endured the same circumstances. I also now feel strongly that historians and archaeologists have an ethical responsibility to continue to learn more about these women and other muted groups, and to retell their stories. Future excavations at the Sorrel-Weed House have the potential to do just this. In the meantime, I would like to extend many thanks to Professor Seifert and to the folks at the Sorrel-Weed House for their unremitting hospitality and for seeking us out for archaeological investigations at their site.

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Discovering Dave: Spirit Captured in Clay

We are excited to announce the documentary, Discovering Dave: Spirit Captured in Clay, is coming to Armstrong on January 22 at 6pm. Scrapbook Video Productions and the Savannah River Archaeological Research Program produced this historical documentary film about Dave, a literate slave potter from the Edgefield District of South Carolina. Dave’s pots and jars give us a unique and rare opportunity to learn more about Dave as an individual as well as South Carolina’s Edgefield District potteries. The film has been snapping up awards left and right. Don’t miss it! Our screening will be January 22 at 6pm on the second floor of Armstrong’s Student Union Center. Click here for more detailed information in our press release.

San Diego Film Festival 3

Parking on the Armstrong campus

Parking on the Armstrong campus

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Dr. David Hurst Thomas Archaeology Lecture this Thursday!

November 6
Distinguished archaeologist Dr. David Hurst Thomas will be speaking about his work on St. Catherines Island. Encompassing nearly 40 years of work, Dr. Thomas has excavated Native American sites 5,000 years old through to the 16th century Spanish mission, Santa Catalina de Guale. Bishop Hartmayer will introduce Dr. Thomas and speak about the importance of archaeology and the Spanish mission site. The lecture will take place at Benedictine Military School at 6pm. Many thanks to our co-sponsor, the Catholic Diocese of Savannah.

Dig Sav poster Fall2014_DHT_ad-page001

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Dig Sav Guided Hike at Skidaway Island State Park

Big thanks to everyone who came to today’s guided hike at Skidaway Island State Park. We visited several archaeology sites covering 6,000 years of history! Our next walking tour is October 12 through downtown Savannah. It starts at the Battlefield Park flagpole (next to the railroad musuem). All of the tours start at 4pm and are recommended for kids over 12 and adults.

Starting out on the hike.

Starting out on the hike.

Some of the kids found artifacts like this small sherd of colonial bottle glass.

Some of the kids found artifacts like this small sherd of colonial bottle glass. 

We learn about the Civil War earthworks and plantation history of the island.

We learn about the Civil War earthworks and plantation history of the island.

Oyster shells from Native American shell middens are one the most common artifacts at the park.

Oyster shells from Native American shell middens are one the most common artifacts at the park.

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Archaeology students visit local dig

Armstrong students enrolled in archaeology and anthropology classes have been visiting an archaeology dig three miles south of the school. Archaeologists are excavating three historic sites: two plantations and one of General Sherman’s 1864 Civil War camps. More information on the site is available at Abercorn Archaeology and on their Facebook page.

The archaeology sites spread out around this amazing 400-year-old live oak tree.

The archaeology sites spread out around this amazing 400-year-old live oak tree.

Archaeologist Rita Elliott explains the site's history and stratigraphy to Intro to Archaeology students.

Archaeologist Rita Elliott explains the site’s history and stratigraphy to Intro to Archaeology students.

Students try to identify artifacts found on site.

Students try to identify artifacts found on site.

Archaeologist Scott Morris maps a possible chimney.

Archaeologist Scott Morris maps a possible chimney.

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