Charleston: An Archaeology of Life in a Coastal Community

Zierden, Martha A., Elizabeth Jean Reitz, and Joseph P. Riley. 2016. Charleston: An Archaeology of Life in a Coastal Community. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Charleston: An Archaeology of Life in a Coastal Community summarizes almost half a century of archaeological research in the South Carolina city known for its historic buildings and vibrant, tourism-centered downtown.

The archaeological program of The Charleston Museum, founded by Elaine Herold, began excavating many urban sites in the 1970s, and then, as urban renewal initiatives gathered steam, proposed a citywide archaeological research plan in 1981. The program was funded by the City, nonprofit organizations, private citizens, and federally-mandated cultural resource management projects.

Authors Martha Zierden, who succeeded Herold at the Charleston Museum, and Elizabeth Reitz have excavated, analyzed, and synthesized at least 55 sites or site components in and around Charleston, digging when and where opportunity presented itself, mixing small-scale salvage operations, privately funded digs, and large-scale compliance-mandated projects, into a cohesive story of a city. In this book, they envision the city of Charleston as a single archaeological site and tell its story “through the lens of foodways” (p. 6) inferred primarily from the analysis of animal bones.

The book includes 12 chapters divided into four sections: an introduction to the city and its ecological setting, and three roughly chronological sections spanning the city’s founding in the late seventeenth century up to the end of the nineteenth century. Interwoven throughout the book are not only discussions of cattle size, butchery patterns, dinner party menus, and unusual archaeological finds like deer antlers, parrot bones, and horn cores, but also a narrative of how archaeologists and historic preservationists contributed to and benefited from Charleston’s renaissance in the twentieth century.

Charles Town was founded in 1670 and moved downriver to its current location ten years later, only changing its name to Charleston in 1783. There were diverse settlers, including slaves, among the earliest colonizers. They grew rice and indigo and traded for deerskins and other goods with the Native inhabitants. After the American Revolution, cotton replaced indigo as a crop, and the number of slaves increased. The economic status of Charleston declined after about 1800, as centers of activity in the south shifted. The American Civil War began in Charleston when Confederate troops bombarded Fort Sumter in April 1861. A massive fire in Charleston the following December, unrelated to military activity, devastated much of the city (the book incorrectly states that the fire occurred on “the eve of the Civil War” [p. 67]), and later in the war, the city came under siege by Union forces. Charleston was a diminished city afterwards, and was periodically hit by other natural disasters, including a major earthquake in 1886.

Many of the city’s architectural resources were preserved through benign neglect, until a blossoming preservation movement in the twentieth century revived the city. Now, Charleston “remains at the forefront of a complex and evolving preservation movement, one that has embraced urban archaeology” (p. 70).

Two seventeenth century sites from the original Charles Town on the Ashley River, as well as a nearby plantation, have been excavated, but no archaeological sites within modern Charleston dating to the seventeenth century have been found yet. Ceramics imported from Europe, China, and Barbados, and locally produced by Native Americans and Africans ceramics are all present, while cattle, pig, and many wild species comprise the faunal assemblages.

By the early eighteenth century, Charleston had moved to its present location and constructed a wall to protect the British colonists from the Spanish. The city quickly grew beyond the confines of the wall, however, and Charleston became one of the wealthiest cities in the colonies by the time of the American Revolution. A variety of sites dating to the eighteenth century have been excavated. The largest sample comes from townhouses, many now operated as historic house museums, owned by the wealthy merchants and planters of the city. These buildings, and the yards, outbuildings, and archaeological deposits associated with them, provide a window into life during the late 1700s – a prosperous time for much of Charleston.

More of the economic history of the city, especially that related to food procurement and distribution, has been revealed by research at parts of the now-buried city wall, associated buildings like the Powder Magazine, an early theater building, and a tavern. Excavation of the Beef Market was conducted room by room in the basement of the current Charleston City Hall; the cramped indoor working conditions were alleviated by the availability of air conditioning and fluorescent lights.

Because different people lived closely together in Charleston, it can be difficult to tease apart artifacts associated with specific groups. At the James Stobo Plantation outside of the city, artifacts illuminate the lives of the wealthy owner and both African and Native American slaves who also lived at the site. Architectural and landscape evidence at that site, and at the townhome of a slave trader in the city, is interpreted as evidence that some white homeowners modified their houses to incorporate defensive measures out of fear of a rebellion by slaves. Artifact assemblages in town illuminate the tea drinking ceremony of the wealthy, the work that went on in the back yards of the houses, and the economic activities of enslaved African Americans and others in the urban markets. The authors also draw connections between the Charleston sites and Mary Musgrove’s Trading Post and Cowpen, located in Georgia, which supplied cattle and deerskins to the city.

Charleston’s economic growth slowed early in the nineteenth century. There were still plenty of wealthy planters, however, and archaeologists and architectural historians, informed in part by pollen analysis, have identified a reorganization of outside and inside spaces to segregate and control slaves, especially after the Denmark Vessey Insurrection of 1822.

In the first half of the century, water and sanitation needs were handled, often inadequately, by households. At the Sanders House, an unusual floor paved with cow toe bones, possibly to promote drainage, was uncovered by archaeologists prior to construction of a swimming pool. Brick drains, wells, and cisterns are found at most residential sites, and “A large part of yard maintenance involved keeping chickens and pigs out of the garden, cats out of the well, and rats out of the pantry” (p. 248). Meanwhile, “Charleston Eagles” (i.e., buzzards) did their part to keep the city clean by scavenging refuse from the markets. After the Civil War, the responsibility for road, water, sewer, and garbage was gradually assumed by the local government, resulting in improvements in sanitation but a reduction in the opportunity for artifacts to enter the archaeological record.

The book is addressed to a general, rather than specialist audience, but will be most appreciated by historical archaeologists looking for an overview of urban archaeology in a Southern context. Site descriptions and details of finds are necessarily abbreviated, but the book is supplemented by six appendices, including artifacts and faunal remains summarized for the city as a whole (subdivided by time period, but not by individual site), which is consistent with the authors’ idea of thinking of the entire city as a single archaeological site. Fortunately, one of the appendices is a list of published reports for each site, which should make it easy for other researchers to track down the original references (reports produced by the Charleston Museum can be downloaded from their website).

While slavery and how it is manifest in the archaeological record is discussed throughout the book, the Civil War itself does not get much attention, and there is no discussion specifically of Reconstruction and its aftermath. Overall, Charleston: An Archaeology of Life in a Coastal Community is a very good summary of historical archaeology in the city up to A.D. 1900, with a rare emphasis on the animal bones. Most fascinating is how the book documents how collaboration among professional archaeologists, the Charleston Museum, the city, nonprofits, and private owners, created a long-term, successful urban archaeology and historic preservation program that has been a major factor in Charleston’s renaissance in the late twentieth century.

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