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The ground doesn’t lie: Archaeologist explores slave village at Brookgreen

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Archaeologists will begin searching for evidence of a lost slave village at Brookgreen Gardens next month, and their discoveries could lead to a new exhibit regarding life on a Lowcountry rice plantation.

Susan Hoffer McMillan of Conway, owner of Waccamaw Archeological Partnership, has worked at Brookgreen before and will hold an orientation Oct. 3 at 10 a.m. at the gardens visitors center for Brookgreen member volunteers who want to join in the search.

“I live in the past,” McMillan said during a presentation to Senior Scholars at Georgetown Library last week. “It’s a real pleasure to be involved in something that gives back to the community history lost over time. There’s a story beneath the soil.”

McMillan said evidence of an unknown diamond-shaped slave village of about 50 cabins and a praise house built around 1820 turned up during a search for a slave village store.

“Slave cabins were usually built on both sides of a road,” McMillan said. “This is a very unique village. We will be doing what archaeologists call ‘chasing out the village.’ It will be a very exciting project.”

McMillan said the work will involve less digging than her last search at Brookgreen. “We dug 290 holes and found almost 25,000 artifacts,” she said. This project will be less invasive, using ground penetrating radar. “We won’t do as much digging as running equipment over the ground and discerning where the sites were. We don’t need to dig them up unless we want artifacts.”

During previous work at Brookgreen, McMillan and her crew dug holes ranging in depth from 8 inches to 4 feet and eventually found what they believed to be a root cellar. “It was an area of disturbance about 6 feet long and 3 feet across full of artifacts: bottles, a locket, part of a pocket watch, things you wouldn’t expect to find in a slave village,” McMillan said. “Our guess is that the store had an accompanying outbuilding, perhaps the storekeeper’s dwelling or a kitchen, some sort of support structure for the store. A root cellar was not uncommon. There was one at the overseer’s house.”

Slave villages became her specialty, McMillan said, after archaeological work at Brookgreen concluded and owners of former plantations began to wonder about their own history. She said her crew worked at Hopsewee, Arcadia and Mansfield. “The group I trained in the ’90s moved around and contacted homeowners,” she said. “This year Brookgreen Gardens invited us to come back.”

She said Brookgreen hopes to frame out a few of the village’s cabins for presentation purposes.

Most data about the 18th century slave villages was lost after Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington purchased Brookgreen, Laurel Hill, Springfield and The Oaks in 1930 to create a sculpture garden and winter home. Slave cabins were torn down, and new houses were built for descendants living on the property. McMillan said that Diana’s Pool is where the Brookgreen Plantation house stood.

Fields were cultivated at Brookgreen in subsequent years, McMillan said. Pines were planted and cut with their stumps pulled out of the ground. “All that plowing year after year destroyed the brick footings of the slave cabins,” McMillan said. “We were not able to dig up a foundation. That’s all gone. We found chopped up bricks the plow blade hit and scattered.”

The new dig site is wooded, and McMillan hopes it wasn’t as heavily cultivated as her previous location.

“The bottom line is the ground doesn’t lie,” she said. “There will be artifacts where those cabins were. Garbage collection service is a 20th century concept. In that day, trash and broken dishes were swept off the porch or thrown out the window. If you were to find a slave cabin today and lift it up, there would be a neat outline of that cabin in the soil: toys dropped by children, things swept under the porch. That footprint is very distinctive.”

Broken dishes tell a story all their own, McMillan said. Slaves made their own dishes, and bits and pieces of those turn up with broken English ceramics in the soil. “What we learned is that over time, planters would gift their favorite slaves with castoff dishes,” McMillan said. “That’s the primary way the planters’ ceramics ended up on slave village sites.”

Pieces of inexpensive English china have been found in slave villages within months of their issue, she said. Most evidence turns up in tiny pieces, the size of a fingernail. “To touch something handled by a slave centuries ago is pretty exciting,” McMillan said. “That’s a powerful connection.”

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