Ashley Smallwood knows firsthand that a Southern swamp is slow to give up its secrets – especially after thousands of years.
“Rivers change course, species go extinct and the world changes,” the University of West Georgia archaeologist said. “You have to imagine what an area was like back in time.”
This summer, Smallwood and her colleagues are exploring an isolated knoll in a Richmond County swamp, hoping to find evidence of the first humans to visit the area.
After three weeks of careful excavation, the 12 students and faculty members have found plenty of artifacts beneath the loamy forest floor, but they still have a long way to go.
“Right now we’ve gone back 5,000 to 6,000 years – the late Archaic period,” she said. “But we’re looking for Clovis – or even pre-Clovis, which goes back 13,000 years.”
Smallwood, an assistant professor and director of the school’s Antonio Waring Jr. Archaeological Laboratory, said prehistoric Clovis culture sites are rare in Georgia.
“So much is still unknown,” she said. “We’ve known about Clovis and early paleo here for a long time, but most of the artifacts from that period were found near the surface or in disturbed areas.”
One of the biggest challenges is locating a Clovis settlement in situ, or in place, where artifacts can be unearthed intact.
Such a site might lie just below the area now being explored.
“If this was a good place for one culture, chances are it was good before that for earlier cultures,” she said.
So far, the site has fulfilled its expectations.
Students Paige Lancaster and Justin Unterwagner have spent three weeks exploring a 1-meter-square compartment on the forest floor.
For long hours each day, they face each other on opposite sides of the small pit, using toothpicks – even paintbrushes – to clean and preserve artifacts just as they are found.
“It’s about 5 centimeters per level, and we’re down to level 7,” Lancaster said.
Among the treasures plucked from the pits were two Savannah River points – a complete one and a second with the tip missing. There were also tiny stone flakes left behind by generations of visitors who sharpened or manufactured tools at their campsite.
One of the dig’s most fascinating finds is an ancient hearth, formed by a manmade semicircle of river clay that has compacted over thousands of years into heavy, oxidized lumps.
Its presence on the forgotten knoll is evidence that the citizens of prehistory camped and cooked there as part of their quest for comfort and survival.
Students Stephanie West and Kelsey Francen have carefully dug around the clay, which will be removed in time and studied.
“We look for every single clue,” West said. “We want every piece, and we want every piece as it was left.”
Individually, the fingernail-size chips of stone, discolored lumps of clay and soapstone fragments are little more than prehistoric litter. Properly studied, though, they help paint a picture of life in the Savannah River swamps thousands of years ago, said Tom Jennings, an assistant professor working at the site.
Some of the stone fragments are from rocks found only in faraway locales.
“Some of it occurs up in northwest Georgia and Tennessee,” he said. “So finding it here tells us about movement, maybe even about trade patterns.”
The archaeology project, aided with support from Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Transportation, probably will resume next year, Smallwood said.
Extracting the site’s deepest secrets could take many years with no guarantee of success.
“A lot of archaeology is luck,” she said. “You work hard, you spend a lot of time, you hope for success.”