Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Coastal Carolina University Dig Unearths Shipbuilding History

Coastal Carolina University Dig Unearths Shipbuilding History
Boat fire marked end of an era
By Steve Jones - sjones@thesunnews.com

CONWAY -- Work at Government Shipyard of Conwayborough stopped when the steam-driven vessel Maggie burned up at a dock on the Waccamaw River during an early May night in 1897.

The ship fire, which started around midnight, spread to some of the nearby warehouses as well as the shipyard. Reports from the time record the end of the Maggie, a Waccamaw Line ship that hauled cargo and passengers. Archaeologists at Coastal Carolina University can tell it was the end of the shipyard because the layering of the soil at a site near Kingston Presbyterian Church showed only fill material and then parking lot material above the layer of charred soil.

"We see this all over the world," said Cheryl Ward, director of the Center for Archaeology and Anthropology at CCU.

After evidence of a fire is found at an archaeological site anywhere on the globe, there typically is evidence in the soil layer above the charred layer that the destruction has been cleaned up and those using it have converted its use to something different.

Ward's hiring by the university last year and the subsequent hiring of two more archaeologists will open up a field of study for students and give the area a new resource for readily and literally digging into its past.

Ward, for instance, said she has been asked to join the board of the Horry County Museum and is planning a dig on the grounds of the Burroughs School, where the museum is relocating.

Ben Burroughs, president of the Horry County Historical Society, said the things Ward and the other archaeologists uncover could alter historical misimpressions and give more detail to the county's history.

"Horry County history has not been thoroughly researched, in my opinion," said Burroughs.

He said CCU hired an earlier archaeologist around 1990 who uncovered the site of Richmond Hill Plantation in the Wachesaw area of Horry County. Historical evidence of the plantation existed, but the archaeological dig gave proof of the size of the plantation house and the life its owners lived.

Ward also does maritime archaeology and speaks with pride of the reconstruction of an Egyptian vessel discovered at a site she has worked in Egypt for decades. The Waccamaw, she said, contains what's left of any number of vessels that sank in the county's early English history.

She and the other archaeologists at CCU were lured there from other universities by the opportunity to create an archaeology program from the ground up. They are writing the documents that will allow archaeology to be a program minor at the school. Eventually, it will evolve into a major study program of its own and then undertake a graduate program.

One of the things that excites Ward about starting the CCU program is that she will be able to involve undergraduates in the investigation that is archaeology.

The hole that opened up near the Conway waterfront in June was dug by crews who were burying utility lines, Ward said.

"We realized it was a phenomenal opportunity," Ward said.

Not only was it a small trench into the city's past, but it came at a time that it could be incorporated into her program's archaeological field school. Students at the time participated in the recovery of artifacts and will help in their specific identification as part of this year's classwork.

The hoped-for dig at Burroughs School will show students and others that the artifacts found underground are often a piece of a puzzle, the full picture of which doesn't come without researching historical records and the memories of those with direct experience of things found underground.

In the pit near Kingston Presbyterian, which measured between 12 feet and 20 feet wide by about 12 feet deep, there was enough resin to immediately determine that the site was likely used for shipbuilding. The resin came from the sap of pine trees, which yielded materials such as tar, pitch and turpentine, essential to keep commercial, wooden ships afloat.

The site also yielded things such as metal hoops used on wooden barrels, factory and handmade nails and other items that would further substantiate the industrial use of the area.

Additionally, two dime-size pieces of pottery were found. The patterns on them will lead to dating when and where they were made as well as how they might have been used.

The artifacts from that dig were already above ground when CCU's archaeologists and students got to the site. The crews who dug them up recognized there could be historical value in them and called the school.

"All over the surface were huge lumps of things from naval stores and bits of pottery from the 18th century. The deepest level of the hole was dated to about 1820.

It wasn't the ideal situation for an archaeologist, who wants to be the first one to disturb a site for study. But it helped to reinforce Ward's conviction that she made the right decision to relocate to Conway.

It showed her that people there are tuned into history as something important and are willing to act on it, she said.

"I've never been in a place," Ward said, "where you can call up on Wednesday and, by Friday, everybody says 'yes.'"

Contact STEVE JONES at 444-1765.

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