Friday, March 18, 2011

Digging for answers, finding more questions

DARLINGTON COUNTY -- For the last 16 years, archaeologists have been digging up the past at the Great Pee Dee Heritage Preserve in Darlington County. Excavations of the 2,725-acre site, owned and managed by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, have produced American Indian artifacts dating back 12,000 years. Evolution of the Annual Johannes Kolb Archaeology and Education Project gives the public and students the opportunity to see what makes the Great Pee Dee site so unique.

"We dig small holes and that gives us basic information about the site. Where are the artifacts? Not only horizontally, but vertically. How deep are things buried? Our shovel testing after 200 or 300 holes all produced artifacts which is incredibly rare for an archaeology site," Sean Taylor, an Archaeologist with DNR, said.

The field project started as an attempt to not only look for artifacts that belonged to our earliest ancestors and discover what their lives were like through excavations, but to also give students a rare learning opportunity.

"There wasn't a lot of field opportunities for students, so the main point of the project is to get some students out to get some field expertise. How do we do archaeology? Why do we do archaeology? What are we learning from archaeology? That has been our main focus all along," Taylor said.

Very discreet clusters of Early Archaic, 8,000 B.C. to 1,000 B.C., and Paleoindian artifacts, from between 13,000 B.C.and 7,900 B.C., have been found since the excavation expanded to four meter square blocks. "We can take those and we are very careful to map and coordinate items so we can see where certain activities are, just like in your kitchen or perhaps your workshop today. We organize ourselves so we can function and do certain tasks and the same is true for people in the past," Taylor said.

An artifact may very well be the answer to a question, but it's a little piece of a very big puzzle. Take for example the spear point Archaeologist Chris Young found. Based on other research in the area he was able to determine a time period when people would have used that particular kind of tool. "The only problem we have is that the base is broken off and that is probably the most diagnostic part of the point. What I mean by diagnostic is it's an attribute that we can associate with a certain time period. We believe this is from the early Archaic or Middle Archaic period. If we can figure out what the material is and where it came from, then we can make interpretations of the source. Were they getting it out of the Pee Dee River or were they trading stone with other people we think they may be encountering along their natural path or journey?," Young said.

And that's the point of archaeology. It's not necessarily finding an artifact, but finding human behavior. "It's not so much the point to collect artifacts for the sake of those artifacts. All the things we find are neat little items and we very much enjoy finding them, but we're very much interested in finding what are the behaviors, the types of activities the people were doing that caused these artifacts to be created or be left behind. To learn about what people were doing in the past," Taylor said.

A Florence mother visiting the site with a group of students said visiting the site and being able to touch history helped even young children develop a better understanding of human behavior. "You know that there were Native Americans here. Right here, walking around. You can kind of even imagine them, wow! They were out here by the river and making their pottery and here we are hundreds of years later, looking at these things."

And it's that sense of the awesomeness of history that keeps archaeologists digging.

The Johannes Kolb Archaeology site was discovered in the 1970's by Chip Helms.

You can watch the CarolinaAlive video here.

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