Digging up SC’s past, one layer at a time

cclick@thestate.comMarch 13, 2013 

— The calls of migratory birds echo through an eerily quiet cyprus swamp as pilgrims make their way on a rutted gravel and dirt road to the holy grail of South Carolina archaeological digs, the Johannes Kolb Archaeological Site.

For two weeks in March, professional archaeologists, students, and the curious travel through parts of the Great Pee Dee Heritage Preserve to painstakingly sift through layers of soil. They search for clues to the lives of hunter-gatherers who passed here thousands of years ago, as well as the German immigrant farm family and the plantation owner who resided on the river bluffs two-and-a-half centuries past.

“People have been here for so long and left so much behind,” said Sean Taylor, the archaeologist for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources Heritage Trust. DNR, along with USC-Lancaster and the Diachronic Research Foundation, organize the annual pilgrimage to the Kolb dig.

It’s a teaching site, Taylor said, designed to ignite interest in the natural world and, perhaps most importantly, “to get school kids to find out what’s under their feet.”

Wednesday, several dozen explorers — including archaeologists, a professor and his students, teenagers from Camden Military Academy, and a mother-and-son duo — were on the acre-and-a-half site overlooking the muddy Great Pee Dee. Saturday, Taylor expects upwards of 200 visitors for the site’s annual Public Day. Those who come Saturday can assist in the ongoing dig, view demonstrations of ancient tool making and hear from interpreters who will explain the history of the Native Americans who peopled the land long before the arrival of European explorers.

“I’ve always been fascinated by how old some of these artifacts are,” said Josh Hunter, a USC-Lancaster sophomore from Kershaw. “It’s almost like you are going back several different time periods, all in one day.”

Like many on the site, Hunter loved to dig as a child. He entered college thinking he would major in biology and go to medical school, but he was bitten by the archaeology bug and found himself drawn to life in the outdoors.

Wednesday, Hunter and other diggers unearthed shards of Stallings Island pottery, a clay and Spanish moss mixture developed by Native Americans 500-800 years ago; and found flakes from an ancient tool-making process and 18th-century nails.

The seven two-meter plots laid out through the woods are divided into quarters and excavated five millimeters at a time. After each layer is examined, the site is scraped and photographed and artifacts listed and bagged, before the process begins again. At the end of the two-week dig, the dirt is returned to the site.

Since its establishment in 1997, archaeologists have found examples of ancient Stallings Island and Thoms Creek ceramic pottery, arrowheads, stone shavings and other finds from the Mississippian, (900 to 1600 A.D.), Woodland, (1000 B.C. to 1000 A.D.), Archaic, (8000 to 3000 B.C.), and Paleoindian (12,000 to 10,000 B.C.), periods. There have been significant finds from 18th- and 19th-century life.

Chris Judge, who teaches anthropology and archaeology at USC-Lancaster and oversees the university’s Native American Study Center, is partially responsible for igniting such interest. He has overseen the collection of 720 bankers boxes of artifacts from the Kolb site, artifacts that are stored, washed and studied at the center in downtown Lancaster.

Judge, a former DNR archaeologist, taught Sean Taylor and remembers that his student “turned his first shovel of dirt” in the Pee Dee Preserve. The 2,725-acre preserve, deeded to the state by a paper company in the late 1980s, is an outdoorsmen’s paradise, replete with wildlife and flowers, and regularly used by hunters.

The site is named for German immigrant Johannes Kolb, who established a homestead and mill on the Pee Dee River during the 18th century in what was known as the Welsh Tract. The land remained in the Kolb family for decades, then eventually passed into the hands of Thomas C. Williamson, who lived on the land with 62 slaves, growing corn and other crops.

Dr. Ernest “Chip” Helms, a Darlington physician, was instrumental in calling attention to the historic plot. He searched the Pee Dee for ancient artifacts as a teenager in the 1970s when it was a hunting club and helped finance the ongoing excavations.

The Kolb site has cast its particular spell on lots of people since excavations began in 1997. Perfectly sane people plan their vacations around the dig and otherwise make time to visit.

Josiah Vice, a student at Trident Tech and an online school, once found large shards of some Stallings Island pottery and was able to reassemble part of it, which has kept him, and his mother, coming back.

“That was an amazing moment,” Elizabeth Vice, a Montessori teacher, recalled.

John Ward, a retired Darlington County businessman and farmer, calls himself a friend of the Kolb site and visits regularly. He remembers with relish ferrying in visitors by boat a few years ago when the Great Pee Dee rose, flooding the road and bridge so that cars could not get to the site.

“It’s quite a mysterious and intriguing place,” said Tariq Ghaffar, a former archaeologist-turned-English teacher and department head at Camden Military Academy. He attempted to transmit that mystery to his seven teenage charges, who earned status as members of the school’s archaeology society “by listening to my excruciatingly dull and extremely boring” lectures on artifact-hunting and history, he said.

The lesson seemed to take as the students sifted and sorted through the dirt.

“It’s crazy to think about this insignificant little rock in your hand and it could be hundreds or thousands of years old,” said Tanner Youngblood, a 17-year-old junior from Dallas, Texas.


About the dig

Since 1997, archaeologists with the Johannes Kolb Archaeological Site in Darlington County, have found ancient ceramic pottery, arrowheads, stone shavings and other finds from the Mississippian, (900 to 1600 A.D.), Woodland, (1000 B.C. to 1000 A.D.), Archaic, (8000 to 3000 B.C.), and Paleoindian (12,000 to 10,000 B.C.) periods. There have been finds from 18th- and 19th-century life.


Join the dig

Get down and dirty Saturday during Public Day, 9 a.m.-4 p.m., at the Johannes Kolb archaeological site in the Great Pee Dee River Heritage Preserve in Darlington County. Sift for artifacts from the Paleoindian period to the 19th century, enjoy demonstrations of African-American lifeways, leatherworking, and stone tool-making as well as listen to interpreters and re-enactors explain Native American life. Bring a lunch and water and be prepared to travel down a dirt and gravel road to reach the site.

If you can’t get there Saturday, travel to the dig overseen by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources anytime though March 22. For more information, click here. Pull down the "Volunteer" tab for directions.

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