Archaeologists begin exploring Bull Street property

dhinshaw@thestate.comDecember 10, 2013 

  • Three things about the archaeological dig

    • Cost is at least $200,000, with $50,000 raised so far.

    • Six to eight people at a time are working to survey the site and locate buried items made of lead, brass, silver and copper.

    • Civil War-era artifacts may include pocket knives, uniform buttons, eating utensils. Pits prisoners dug to sleep in, as well as an escape tunnel, could be uncovered.

— Activity began this week to document what’s on the grounds – and underground – at the landmark Bull Street hospital campus before a developer transforms the historic site in downtown Columbia.

The weather didn’t cooperate, but archaeologists with metal detectors began scooping up shovels of dirt, looking for 150-year-old artifacts from the days when a 3.5-acre corner was used as a Civil War prisoner of war camp.

In the first two days of work, they found three items that lead archaeologist Chester DePratter said date to the right period: a 44-caliber shell casing no longer made after 1865, a Union officer’s coat button from the state of New York and an 1853 half dime.

College students in waterproof jackets prepared to measure and photograph vacant buildings.

A radar operator from the Richland County Sheriff’s Department lent his expertise, confirming for the crew that the tract is criss-crossed by a deep network of water and sewer lines that DePratter said will hamper the search for an escape tunnel.

DePratter is working quickly to document and remove artifacts from the Bull Street property, still owned by the S.C. Department of Mental Health.

The land is under contract by Greenville developer Bob Hughes, who kicked in $25,000 for DePratter’s dig. The city of Columbia – which negotiated with Hughes to save at least five of 55 structures on the 181-acre tract – matched Hughes.

Assistant city manager Missy Gentry said Tuesday there’s no clear timeframe for the development yet. Once Hughes nails down a major tenant, he’ll submit plans to the city.

“There’s certainly a lot of activity going on – a lot of interest – but there’s no announcement,” she said.

DePratter said he’s been given access to the site for four months, January through April.

What he’s doing this week lays the groundwork.

James Stewart, who just got his master’s in archaeology, is surveying the site, creating a grid to map the search for artifacts.

Jim Legg and Spencer Barker are using metal detectors and shovels to uncover what’s proved so far to be 20th century trash.

“These people have decades of experience,” said DePratter, head of the research division at the University of South Carolina’s Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology.

“If anybody can find anything, they can.”

Legg knew from the get-go that the site would be challenging because it’s downtown and has been “disturbed” so frequently.

Turns out the end of the property they started scanning with metal detectors had been covered in fill dirt 30- to 48-inches deep. They moved to a different spot Tuesday, one at the top of a small slope.

In two days, they found a lot of things that, as Legg put it, were “out of place” – World War II buttons, a belt buckle, toys like small cars and broken cap guns.

Despite rain showers contributing to a slow start, DePratter maintained a sense of optimism.

He said they’re certain to find plenty of everyday items that belonged to the 1,200 Union prisoners of war who lived on the grounds for two months, from December 1864 to January 1865 – uniform buttons, pocket knives, eating utensils.

“Oh, we will,” he said. “There’s no doubt.”

The project has become such a part of his life that he and his wife, Chris, spend at least an hour each night transcribing the diaries of the imprisoned men. “It’s like reading about some relative and their life 150 years ago,” he said.

Separately, public history students are finishing a project to document nine buildings in the core of the property.

“One thing led to another, and it was sent to me as a pet project,” said Kim Campbell, who’s a graduate assistant with the Historic Columbia Foundation.

Volunteers are measuring and photographing buildings, as well as writing architectural descriptions, to create a visual archive of the mental hospital, which starting in the 1820s was a self-contained community.

“These buildings are a part of Columbia’s community that we haven’t known about,” Campbell said.

Three things about the archaeological dig

Cost is at least $200,000, with $50,000 raised so far.

Six to eight people at a time are working to survey the site and locate buried items made of lead, brass, silver and copper.

Civil War-era artifacts may include pocket knives, uniform buttons, eating utensils. Pits prisoners dug to sleep in, as well as an escape tunnel, could be uncovered.

Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.

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