Master Preservationist Program-Day Two. Unearthing a Civilization

I’d like to preempt this post with a disclaimer.  You may find me getting on a little bit of a soapbox toward the end, but I promise it won’t hurt too much. 🙂

And so…the topic of study for our second day of the Master Preservationist Program was Archaeology.  Typically most of us think of preservation as having to do with buildings, or anything above the ground, but it is below ground where the real story of a civilization lies.  Because history was usually authored by the more educated classes, through archaeology and excavation we can get a truer sense of the past.

To shed light on some of Charleston’s riches, we discussed:

Excavations at various homes including 14 Legare St, in which original garden paths were discovered and then restored to their original glory.

Excavation of a high concentration of animal bones at Washington Park and City Hall, the former site of Charleston’s Beef Market. These findings helped researchers understand about the Colonial Era diet.

The Walled City excavation at the base of Tradd St attempting to find the original redan, or v-shaped projection that made up part of the City’s fortifications.  To see a map of the walled city, check out my previous post from Day One.  Here’s a photo from Day 19 of their dig in 2009.  Amazing!

And then below is a photo of what that area looks like now, after they were required to replace what they had dug up.  Call me crazy, but couldn’t we be allowed to sacrifice a few parking spaces in the interest of history?  Imagine how neat it would be to have a preserved and protected view of the original fortifications.

As an FYI…If you are interested in walking the walled city, you can pick up a great map at the Historic Charleston Foundation or if you are an iPhone-aholic, City Slicker makes an incredible application that will take you on a tour as well.

We also passed around a huge collection of unearthed pottery and china, mostly from the 19th Century.  The designs and colorations varied significantly but below is a photo of my favorite one.  This piece came from the neck of a large vessel.  Though it is difficult to see because of the plastic bag in which it is encased, you might be able to make out the painting of a sailing ship, the ocean, and a skull with a pirate’s hat!

And then fortunately for us, two of our group’s participants own homes on the Charleston Peninsula in which archaeological excavations were completed.  They spoke of vast collections of bottles, pottery, marbles, horses hooves, and building structures that were found.  The work done by the archeologists was financed by the owners, not because they were required to do it, but because they had a healthy respect for these artifacts and the stories they can tell (I commend you gentlemen!).  Currently, there is no other funding in place to cover these efforts.  To give you an idea of the scope – to properly excavate an historical area to allow for a 40 ft swimming pool will cost a home owner about $13,000.

Which brings me to this.  Charleston has a vast treasure trove of history lying beneath her beloved grounds, yet to date there is no archaeological ordinance protecting or financing the excavation of it.  Sure, one has been bandied about for decades, but thus far not one sentence has been put in place.  Even Miami Beach has one!

But really, why should we care about all this “old stuff” and a past that is two or three hundred years gone, when frankly, dealing with it is kind of a pain in the neck?

Because today, especially today, in our hyper-now, immediate gratification existence, it is important to get that we are only one tiny stitch in time, and that the rich context of our history makes us who we are today.  To understand now, we have to understand then, wouldn’t you agree?  As my husband likes to say, “You never actually own a house, rather you are paying for the privilege of renting a space and place in history.”

So would you want to help unearth a civilization?  If you live in a house Downtown, would you want to discover what lies beneath?

Read about Day One: Charting Charleston’s Past

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