GPR at Theus Plantation–Yesterday’s News

Yesterday, I conducted a Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) survey of a portion of the Theus plantation at Palmetto Bluff, Beaufort County, South Carolina. I was ably assisted by archaeologists Ellen Shlasko, Kris Lockyear, Katrina Epps, Heather Cline, Jessie Ann Larson, and others at Integrated Archaeological Services, Bluffton, SC. This study was also covered by the local news media (The Island Packet, see archives for 04/08/08 at islandpacket.com). The preliminary survey results look very intriguing. Stay tuned for more! Oh, and we had good press coverage, see photo below of Island Packet reporter Liz Mitchell and a typical GPRchaeologistTheus Plantation GPR Survey

Text of article from Savannah Morning News, May 30, 2008, by Doug Wyatt:

Archaeologists dig into Palmetto Bluff’s rich history
By Doug Wyatt
Created 2008-05-29 23:30

Palmetto Bluff, near Bluffton, is a swanky place. On the community’s 20,000 acres, you’ll find plenty of stunning scenery, not to mention elegant homes, a spa, tennis courts and other trappings of modern affluent living.

It’s been highly-prized land for a long time, Mary Socci reminds us.

“What’s prime real estate now was prime real estate during the Civil War,” she says. “Not to mention 4,000 years ago.”

Socci is Palmetto Bluff’s archaeologist. In 2004, Palmetto Bluff contracted with Integrated Archaeological Services to dig into the area’s rich history. The community is in its “second phase” of construction, with much of the area still undeveloped.

Working alongside a team from IAS headed by Ellen Shlasko, Socci and her staff have spent the past several years finding and recording the area’s historical and cultural sites. Federal and state laws require developers to document such sites before they build on the land.

Plantation left few clues

The search for the sites often isn’t easy. Theus Plantation, for example, was once a 1,000-acre working farm in the area. Early written records are vague, but a British sea captain owned the property in the 1730s. James T. Theus bought the property in 1830; he raised livestock and harvested corn, peas, beans and cotton on the land.

Obviously there were structures on the estate, but archaeologists haven’t been able to find them. Their only clue was a series of faint fence-post holes.

“We basically have a field that has been plowed for centuries,” Socci said. “There are all sorts of artifacts lying on top of the group, but they’re jumbled up. It’s been plowed so much we’ve lost all context for what we’re finding.”

Among the numerous artifacts that have been discovered are handmade nails, animal bones, pieces of ceramic, buttons made from bone and glass. The items were crafted over millennia; the area has been inhabited, Socci said, since at least around 2000 B.C.

Bringing in the radar

The real story of the Theus Plantation era is found a couple of feet below the field’s surface. What the archaeologists needed was a gizmo that could see through the soil and tell them what might lie underneath.

Dan Elliott, fortunately, has such a machine.

Elliott is a research archaeologist and president of the Savannah-based LAMAR institute. Since 1982, the nonprofit group has conducted archaeological research across the Southeast, embarking on such wide-ranging projects as a study of the Oconee River Valley’s aboriginal mound sites and a survey of previously unstudied colonial period settlements in Georgia and South Carolina.

Elliott owns ground-penetrating radar equipment that sends pulses underground and detects “bounce-back” signals. His GPR machine, resembling a lawnmower with a computer screen atop it, can show and record objects up to 6 feet below the surface. With the device, he can detect foundations, walls, wells and small artifacts without disturbing the soil.

One day in April, Elliott donated his time and his machine to Palmetto Bluff, helping Socci and Shlasko unearth Theus Plantation’s long-buried secrets. In a few short hours, he detected underground post holes and what might be a well. Both would indicate structures, possibly even a house, on the site.

The GPR, Elliott said, “saves a lot of time and manpower. This technology makes us smarter and more efficient, but it will never replace people digging in the dirt.”

A slow process

On a recent warm day, archaeologists JaColeman Hutto and Jessie Lerson carefully scraped away at the earth, exploring the spot where Elliott thinks he detected a well.

“It’s a slow, painstaking process,” Lerson said. “But it’s great being outside. Working inside somewhere filing and collating would be a lot worse.”

About 30 sites of possible historical and cultural importance have been found at Palmetto Bluff, Socci said. “About half of them are Native-American sites; the others are plantation sites.” Her archaeologists, she said, are “down to the last few sites” requiring excavation.

The thousands of artifacts gleaned from the sites are being stored for future study by researchers; some are already on display in the community’s museum.

Many of Palmetto Bluff’s residents, Socci said, have shown a strong interest in learning about the area’s long history.

“It’s a fascinating place,” she said.
For photographs that accompany the article visit: savannahnow.com

The Ground Truth!

The true test of GPR is excavation, and Ellen and her crew tested several GPR anomalies that I recommended for study. The results were very good, in that the GPR anomalies proved to locate cultural features. Some were a little boring maybe, but cultural features none the less.

GPR Plan map of Theus Plantation 2008

GPR Plan map of Theus Plantation 2008

Above is one of the GPR maps. Note the row of circular anomalies at about 20 m north. Below is what was located in the vicinity of one strong circular anomaly, which was located at about 20 m north and 23 m east of the 0 0 point.

A large feature located by the GPR survey and confirmed by excavation.

GPR Anomaly Verified!

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