Originally created 11/29/00

An archaeologist's dream



Of the 310 square miles that is Savannah River Site, only 10 per-cent is used for production.

The remainder - which in-cludes the land where towns stood just 50 years ago - is now unde-veloped and covered with trees.

The undeveloped areas of the federal property have stories that go deeper than the history of the nuclear facility and the former towns - stories of Mississippian farms that date back to A.D. 1000, a cattle ranch possibly destroyed during the Revolutionary War, and a 19th-Century plantation. The researchers of the Savannah River Archaeological Research Program are responsible for telling those stories and preserving the historic culture of the site.

And for those researchers, SRS is an archaeologist's dream.

"This is a very diverse environment, also a very rich environment," said Mark Brooks, a geoarchaeologist with the research program. "As an archaeologist and as a researcher, the thing that is attractive about Savannah River Site is it is in essence a research park whether for ecological research or cultural research."

The archaeological program serves SRS through the University of South Carolina and the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology. The program's 15-member staff - including administrators, researchers, field and lab technicians - conducts field investigations, analyzes artifacts and researches the history of sites located at SRS.

Federal laws such as the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 protect archaeological sites found at SRS.

When an expansion at SRS is planned - such as the construction of a new building or a road - the archaeologists are consulted to survey locations and determine the impact the expansion could have on archaeological sites. The survey allows archaeologists to help the U.S. Department of Energy make decisions before breaking ground on a site. Surveys could lead to a change in construction plans or excavation of a site in order to preserve remains.

Although the SRS program was not established full time until 1978, excavations began in 1973. Since then, nearly 2 million artifacts have been collected, analyzed and stored at SRS. There are currently about 1,500 archaeological sites. Because archaeologists have only intensely covered about 25 percent of SRS's property, there are potentially up to 12,000 sites to be studied.

"There are big areas out here we've not even looked at," said Richard Brooks, historian and program administrator for the archaeological research program.

Although SRS archaeologists conduct digs, most of the work takes place in a laboratory, where artifacts are cleaned, analyzed and preserved. Everything they collect is tagged and stored in a temperature-controlled room so artifacts can be studied in the future.

A lot of items recovered are just unrecognizable flakes. But archaeologists can use bits of pottery, dishes, nails and glass to determine when a site might have been inhabited.

But it's the arrowheads and stone tools that are considered great finds by the archaeologists.

"You get excited when you find cool, pretty things," said Tammy Forehand, the program's curator.

The program has amassed a wealth of historical information on the area, including three volumes on residents of the former towns located on SRS property. Community outreach is an important part of the archaeological program's goals, and archaeologists regularly speak to local historical societies or play host to archaeology days around the region.

"Archaeology, like everything else, has to be relevant," Richard Brooks said.

Robert Moon is the program's outreach coordinator, and during the school year he spends his time traveling to schools, leading students through hands-on activities that teach them about archaeology and why it's important to understand the historical significance of artifacts.

"There's always that moment when they understand what they're looking at," Mr. Moon said. "They see the bigger picture."

And unlike their private counterparts, the researchers at SRS get the luxury of time when excavating and researching sites.

Archaeologists have investigated prehistoric mounds along the Savannah River to find the connection between those mound sites - believed to have been Mississippian chiefdoms - and smaller farm sites located on SRS property.

Research indicates the smaller farms might have been responsible for providing food to the chiefs, said archaeologist Adam King. A drought, Dr. King said, could have led Mississippians to abandon the farms.

Richard Brooks recently completed a report on a cattle ranch located near Steel Creek on SRS. Originally excavated in 1984 when SRS wanted to create a reservoir, the site is the only cowpen excavated in South Carolina. It was occupied between the 1750s and the early 1780s by the family of Catherine Brown and was believed to have been intentionally destroyed during the Revolutionary War by British troops because of the family's Patriot sympathies.

The cattle ranch provides insight to how South Carolinians lived during that time.

"This was the edge of the English world," Richard Brooks said.

Melanie Cabak has spent three years working on a site that was once home to a 19th-century plantation owned by a man named George Bush. The site - called Bush Hill Plantation - is being considered as a landfill and could not be found in any previous record or aerial photographs. Pieces of ceramic dinnerware, glass, a 1901 penny and a monogrammed spoon are just some of the clues Ms. Cabak has collected to help her research the site.

It's the ongoing research, archaeologists said, that has allowed SRS to set a standard in research throughout the Southeast.

"It is a large area, it has a rich archaeological area and it's preserved," said Mark Brooks. "When you think about it, it really is giving something back to the taxpayers."

Reach Peggy Ussery at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 112.