Savannah Research Library and Municipal Archives Director Luciana Spracher presented the Savannah City Council with some findings discovered through the partnership with Georgia Southern University during a workshop Thursday.
There was no evidence that the four Cluskey Embankment Stores, built in 1842 as part of an erosion prevention project, were used to house slaves, a common belief spread by local tour companies, Spracher said.
The only documentation regarding the vaults’ indicated they were simply used as storage with no further details. The city was also unable to find any historical photos of the vaults to see what they looked like at the time.
The archaeological dig found evidence that some vaults were used as a horse stable and for coal storage, however. There were also artifacts dating back to 1864 discovered – such as buttons, wine bottles and cast iron pots – that indicated one vault was occupied by Union Forces during the Civil War.
“(The vaults) had many uses,” Spracher said. “It’s not like they just have one story.”
Overall, more than 6,700 artifacts were discovered, including stone pipe fragments, smoking pipe stems, lantern tops and druggist bottles.
The artifacts are still being cataloged and analyzed at Georgia Southern and are expected to be returned to the city for public display in June.
Improvements have been made to the historical vaults since the city began investigating them. Parking has been prohibited there and decorative poles have been installed to prevent vehicles from using them for that purpose. The lighting has also been upgraded within the vaults and interpretive signs are planned for the site to explain the history of the vaults.
“This is a historical site and we are going to start treating it that way,” Spracher said.
The vaults are one of the oldest historical structures owned by the city, pre-dating City Hall, police headquarters and the Thomas Gamble building.
In 1966, they were included as a contributing structure in the Savannah Historic District’s National Historic Landmark Designation and the 1969 National Register of Historic Places Designation.
Interest in the vaults was renewed in late 2011, when the Shinhoster Youth Leadership Group explored their history. The group’s recommendations included discontinuing all parking in the vaults and undertaking an archaeological investigation to clarify their historical use.
There is a fifth vault that was built at a later date – although exactly when is unknown – that remains sealed by bricks, Spracher said. The city decided against opening the fifth vault after determining the bricks were used for structural support, she said.
A Savannah-Chatham police officer did use a forensic camera to look into the vault and found it was completely filled with dirt.