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History under foot

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer


There are clues in bits of stone and broken pottery about how the first Americans lived thousands of years ago.

Collectors of spear points, arrowheads and other artifacts learned the back story about life in Indian and colonial villages during an “Archaeology Roadshow” at Hobcaw Barony’s Discovery Center.

The coast provided a ready food supply and easy water travel inland for tribes to hunt and trade. Indians lived here for thousands of years and hardly left a scar on the landscape.

“Everything was symbolic; everything had meaning; everything had life,” said Dr. Keith Stephenson, director of the University of South Carolina’s Savannah River Research Program, who identified artifacts at the roadshow. “Indians did not do art for art’s sake. Patterns were used to be closer to nature. Animals were considered humans who had lost the ability to speak.”

Penny Christensen brought a collection of Indian pottery pieces she found near Sea Level Loop. She’s been looking for an arrowhead for years, though her husband, Carlos McGrigor, found one on Litchfield Beach and her mother found one at Surfside and another at Litchfield. “You’d think I would find one somewhere,” Christensen said.

Ben and Molly Marlow and their 10-year-old son, Wheeler, brought a collection of pottery they found near their home on Pawleys Creek to be examined. Stephenson said it resembled Swift Creek, Ga., pottery that was found during Works Progress Administration jobs in the 1930s. He said the Marlows’ pottery was likely 1,000 years old. It had a stamp pattern made by carving a design into a paddle and pressing it into the clay. Indians also used fabric on paddles to press a more complicated design into pottery. Cooking vessels, Stephenson said, were massive crocks holding soups or stews over a fire that burned continuously. “You could smell an Indian village a mile away,” he said. “They would burn it every 20 years or so and move. They didn’t fight over land. Women did all the work while men gambled and fought with each other for prestige.”

Ben Marlow found an ax head of black stone near the Hagley boat landing. Bob Mims brought a similar piece that he found off South Island Road. Stephenson said it could have taken a thousand hours of pecking and grinding to flake the stones.

Jeff Havel brought a display of arrowheads he found in both Carolinas in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Stephenson said the bow and arrow didn’t come into use until about 500 A.D. Havel also had a string of trade beads from the colonial era.

“It’s been fascinating for us to see what people have,” said roadshow organizer Nena Powell Rice of the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Financier wasn’t the first to spot a good location

Archaeologist Tamara Wilson of the University of South Carolina turned up a 7,000-year-old projectile point during a dig near Hobcaw House last week, filling in a gap in the story about Native Americans on the land.

Archaeologists under the direction of Karen Smith of the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology dug 200 holes inside the fenced yard and field at Hobcaw House and began developing a theory there was a gap in habitation during the “Middle Archaic” period around 5,000 B.C. The bits of broken pottery and other artifacts they turned up provided evidence of man at Hobcaw as early as 10,000 years ago. Those “Early Archaic” pieces and other “Late Archaic” pieces began telling a mystery story. Wilson’s “Middle Archaic” Morrow Mountain projectile point changed the narrative.

It will give the USC team something to think about until next fall when they are hoping to return and finish their dig at Hobcaw House, the former home of Bernard Baruch. They began the work two weeks ago with a grant from the South Carolina Department of Archives and History and matching funds from the Archaeological Research Trust.

Smith’s workers turned up thousands of artifacts during their dig — they had just two “negatives” out of 200 holes dug in grids 10 meters apart. The grid method gives an unbiased sample of what’s in the ground, Smith said, as opposed to using intuition or documents. “When we do it systematically,” she said, “we get a nice cross-section.”

The holes are a meter deep, but only the first 50 centimeters yielded archaeological material at Hobcaw, she said, with the exception of the Morrow Mountain point at 55 centimeters. Workers dig deeper in case there are Paleo Indian artifacts from the earliest known inhabitants of the land. “We haven’t seen any of that,” Smith said, “but if it were here, it would be deeper.”

Smith has found evidence of Indian villages on a ridge protected from the wind south of Hobcaw House. “This is a great place to live,” she said. “People have lived here off and on for thousands of years.”

Smith said archaeologists found pieces of Toms Creek pottery near the bluff estimated at 4,000 years old. “Some was for cooking, but a lot are bowls,” she said. “It’s beautiful, well-made and ornately decorated.”

Native Americans didn’t have trash piles, Smith said. They just threw their trash out the door.

“For the most part,” she said, “we just study things left behind, broken and discarded, essentially people’s trash. It tells more about them than what they kept.”

Check-stamped pottery from around 3,000 years ago was a common find at Hobcaw. There was also some pottery marked by pressing fabric into the clay before it was fired. Impressions on pottery are the only clues about fabrics from the time. “It’s very common here,” Smith said.

Work near Hobcaw House revealed some interesting things too. The brick house is right on top of the original wooden house that burned. “That’s good for us to know,” said George Chastain, executive director of the Belle Baruch Foundation.

Evidence of native Americans was found north of Hobcaw House too. Whelk shells from the ocean were found along with 2,000-year-old pottery. “The shells may have had a utilitarian function, a scoop or a cup, but historic accounts say the shells were used in a drinking ceremony,” Smith said.

The same shells have been found in archaeological digs in Ohio and other states. “We often study sites where those things end up,” Smith said. “To see the site of origin is unique.”

Smith said the takeaway from her latest work is that people were at Hobcaw for thousands of years with periods of occupation and abandonment. “We are trying,” she said, “to work that out: when they were here, when they left and where did they go.”

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