Families can get their hands on history at the new SC archaeology lab at BullStreet

Why dig up the past? It's how we learn

SC Department of Natural Resources archaeologists are recovering artifacts that tell stories of the state's history
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SC Department of Natural Resources archaeologists are recovering artifacts that tell stories of the state's history

Families, history buffs and those just interested in South Carolina’s rich cultural heritage have a new way to get their hands dirty – literally.

The S.C. Department of Natural Resources Heritage Trust Program, which has been without a home since its inception in 1974, has landed at BullStreet. The hands-on, public program – the first to be initiated in the United States more than four decades ago – studies 17 culture heritage preserves across the Palmetto State with the help of regular folks who are invited to take part in real archaeological digs.

But digging is just the first and most visible part of archaeology. There is also the process of cleaning, washing, sorting, analyzing and cataloging the finds – from pottery sherds to huge chunks of ancient shell mounds – so that scientists can connect the dots that make up our common history.

“Most people just see us in the field,” said Meg Gaillard, an archaeologist with the trust. “What they don’t see is all the background work that is involved.”

The trust’s new digs (pun intended) is in the historic Parker Annex, located at the corner of Barnwell and Calhoun streets in the former S.C. State Hospital campus. The building was constructed in 1910 and was purchased and restored last year by Diversified Development of Columbia.

The Parker Annex Archaeology Center, as it is now called, is the first building for the program that will have dedicated offices, laboratory and curation and outreach space.

“This is the springboard to our outreach in the community,” Gaillard said.

The building also has storage space for 1,900 boxes of artifacts – artifacts that had been scattered between various DNR and S.C. State Museum offices, an arrangement that made it difficult for researchers to easily access them.

Also, some artifacts were nearly lost in the flood of 2015 in Columbia when Gills Creek rose up and flooded the home office on Timberland Drive of archaeologist Carl Steen of the Diachronic Research Foundation. Scores of artifacts had to be recovered and cleaned by 135 volunteers from as far away as Indiana, which helped spur DNR’s effort to find a permanent home for the program.

Volunteerism like that is the hallmark of the trust’s public archaeology mission.

As many as 300 to 400 people have turned up at digs at heritage preserves, such as Darlington County’s Johannes Kolb Archaeological Site and most recently Fort Frederick Heritage Preserve in Beaufort County.

At Fort Frederick, the trust produced a series of films, lesson plans and other student aides for understanding the site.

Now, South Carolinians can experience the rest of the archaeological process in the restored, 9,344-square-foot Parker Annex.

The annex was built in 1910 to relieve overcrowding of African-American male patients housed in the Parker building (1898-1981). By 1926, African-American patients were moved to the State Park campus, and the Parker Annex began to house white male patients with tuberculosis.

The building also sits on the site of a Union Civil War prisoner camp on the former S.C. State Hospital campus, aptly named Camp Asylum. The site was excavated two years ago during the 150th anniversary of the burning of Columbia during the Civil War.

“A setting like this on an archaeological site is important,” said Sean Taylor, the trust’s senior archaeologist. “This is the right place to practice public archeology.”

The trust’s next dig will be Fort Lamar on James Island in Charleston County. Excavation of parts of the 14-acre site will be in January or February, although the exact date has not been determined.

The 17 preserves each have their own website, and the trust is presently building a universal website that the public can use to register for their program. In the meantime, those interested can email Gaillard at gaillardm@dnr.sc.gov.