Originally created 09/24/98

Digging the past



On a corner of Savannah River Site, workers toil under tall pines that block the late September sun, carving out 1-meter squares from the clay forest floor.

They sift loose dirt, looking for old shards of porcelain china, or rusty, crude "cut nails," or broken windowpanes. If they're lucky, they find old coins or spoons or a piece of a toy. The diggers -- amateur and professional archaeologists for the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology -- are using the artifacts to piece together the life of an old plantation family.

On Wednesday, they invited the public to watch them work.

As a part of South Carolina Archaeology Month, the institute sponsored an open house. About 30 members of the public, including many SRS workers, could attend to see the relics left behind when the U.S. government claimed 310 square miles for the site in 1950.

"These resources, especially out here, belong to everyone," said George "Buddy" Wingard, an institute archaeologist. "Being out here, people can't exactly visit them because of the protected nature of the Savannah River Site. We're trying to preserve these resources for future generations.

"It's just important to protect it for future generations who deserve the opportunity to come out and visit to see these sites, and how people of the past lived."

The institute, a division of the University of South Carolina, conducts studies of both American Indian and colonial archaeological sites at SRS, Mr. Wingard said. It has collected 1.5 million artifacts from SRS and surrounding areas, removed from the ground for storage in plain white boxes made from acid-free cardboard. The pieces now are locked behind a chain-link fence inside a small storage room in the institute's SRS facility.

Some of the artifacts came from the George Bush Plantation, the site of Wednesday's excavation. The Bush family, unrelated to the former president's family, used the plantation during the 19th and early 20th centuries, said Melanie Cabak, archaeologist for the project. It was settled by George Bush, and passed through generations to his descendants, including his son, George, and his grandson, Arthur, she said.

Institute archaeologists found the plantation's main house in 1995, and began excavating it in 1996, Ms. Cabak said. Using artifacts, genealogical research and interviews with descendants, archaeologists have pieced together how the wealthy family lived, she said.

The researchers have found window glass, coins, nails, and shards of fine (and cheap) china, Ms. Cabak said. Archaeologists also have excavated the home's twin chimneys and its brick footings, she said.

Arthur Bush, in particular, left behind unique artifacts, Ms. Cabak said. Mr. Bush, a prominent Aiken judge and South Carolina legislator, became mentally ill in about 1910 and was committed to a state mental hospital because of his violent rages, Ms. Cabak said.

Behind what once was the Bush home's entrance, archaeologists found hundreds of shotgun shells, presumably from shots Arthur Bush fired while sitting upon the home's porch, Ms. Cabak said. Buried nearby were countless tin tags that tobacco companies used to brand their individual plugs of tobacco, she said.

Archaeologists have only a few days left before they complete the site's excavation, Ms. Cabak said. To protect the site's history, they must remove its artifacts, since the area is slated to become a landfill in coming years, she said.

"We think that this site has important information that needs to be preserved, and sometimes preserving it isn't protecting it," Ms. Cabak said. "This site is important because we've never dug a 19th-century plantation at the Savannah River Site. We didn't know anything about the material side of their life."

For SRS employee John Whitehouse, Wednesday's tour was a chance to learn firsthand about the history of his workplace.

"I've been on the site for 11 years, and you sort of hear about these things peripherally, but I wondered about it," Mr. Whitehouse said. He added that he also hoped to learn about the area's history so he could piece together the legacy of the 200-year-old Edgefield plantation he calls home.

Retired school principal John Boyd said he had a more personal reason for attending the tour.

"I'm interested in this primarily because my sister is interested in ancestry," he said. "Some of our ancestors came in when this area was settled, and I'm kind of looking to find out where it was.

"I'm just a curious old man."