FLORENCE, SC — In the woods of southeastern Florence County archaeologists recently revisited a dig that was first located in 1984 and offers a unique look into a society that was here when Spanish explorers first came through.
The Mississippian culture spread across the Southeast until it got to the Watteree and Santee rivers, but then didn’t seem to move any further east, said Ben Zeigler with the Archaeological Institute of the Pee Dee.
The site, located off the beaten path, consisted of a series of freshly cut trails and freshly dug pits well beyond the wood line, and a collection of DNR pickup trucks, and a few private vehicles, parked in the shade in a former cornfield at the wood line.
At the dig sites, archaeologists carefully shoveled dirt from pits and onto sifting tables where the dirt was raked over screens to separate it from pottery shards, arrow points and stone tools.
The tools used by the team varied from shovels to ice scoops and exercise mats to make kneeling in the dirt a bit more comfortable.
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The pits themselves told as many stories as the artifacts.
A black area in the pit could indicate the long-ago location of a post. The color of the dirt in the pit was even categorized by a standardized chart.
Artifacts were placed in plastic bags and paper bags, each labeled to indicate the location where they were located — down to the depth in the soil.
For site security the Morning News agreed not to disclose the dig’s location.
The Mississippian culture was expansive and well developed in what would become the United States and included a town in what is now Illinois that was, at the time, larger than London was.
“This site is important because it was located in 1984, private archaeological firm did the survey, located hundreds of sites on the property, some of which were flagged as Missippians,” Zeigler said.
“In looking at projects to undertake through the Archaeological Institute of the Pee Dee we thought it would be great to go out and do second phase work on this Mississippian occupation,” Zeigler said.
A curious thing made this site different from others in similar situations.
“One of the intriguing items was they found shell deposits, freshwater muscle shells. It’s significant archaeologically because our soils do not preserve bone and other organic matter very well unless you have, in context with them, shells. Our soils are so acidic bones degenerate pretty quickly,” Zeigler said.
Shells, predominantly made of calcium, control acid in the soil much the same way that over the county heartburn remedies control acid in the stomach.
“We worked up a proposal to come out here and do this field work this summer, councilman Roger Poston got wind of it and kind enough to help fund it. He was able to secure funding from the county. We were able to secure a $20,000 grant from Florence County to do this work,” Zeigler said.
Chris Judge, assistant director of the Native American Studies Institute at USC Lancaster, who is also secretary of the Archaeological Institute of the Pee Dee, is overseeing the dig, which includes a number of archaeologists from the DNR and a couple that had Judge for class earlier in their studies.
“Our job is to bridge the gap between static archaeological record and dynamic human behavior that produces the archaeological record,” Judge said.
To do that job everything is examined, examined and documented to the fullest extent it can.
“If we dug a hole here with all the archaeological artifacts and didn’t separate them and document them by the different depths and dig out these features separate from the rest of the hole, we’d simply have a collection of, I wouldn’ t even call them relics,” Judge said as he sifted dirt and bagged pottery shards handed to him by others on the dig.
Ultimately the information will be used to tell the story of the community that lived at the dig site.
“We have to try to imagine what it was like using the best information we have and knowing that our younger colleagues, when they’re my age, when they’re in their 60s, they might have a technique or interpretations we just haven’ t thought of today,” Judge said.
The crew packed up the site as they left at the end of the two weeks and left it such a condition that they can easily pick up where they left off when next they return.
Digital Editor Matt Robertson is a veteran journalist who has fulfilled just about every role that a newspaper has and now serves as a key member of the Morning News’ newsroom by maintaining SCNow.com and covering the occasional story and photo assignment.