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Digging up the past

Several exciting finds have been discovered at The Mitchelville Freedom Park site.

CAN YOU DIG IT? • An archaeological dig at Mitchelville, the first self-governed settlement for freed African slaves, has uncovered several items. Colonoware is handmade, unglazed, low-fired, locally made coarse earthenware found in archaeological sites in Virginia, South Carolina, the Caribbean and to a lesser extent North Carolina and Georgia.

by Luana M. Graves Sellars

The Lowcountry is so rich in history and Mitchelville is a big part of a direct line of what should be a historic trail between Hilton Head and Charleston.

According to Ahmad Ward, executive director of Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park, “I have spent 21 years in cultural heritage tourism and believe that we will be an attraction for people who would not necessarily come to the Lowcountry. We will possibly be a significant (tourism) impact to our area, which has 500 years of history. What’s great is that the Mitchelville project is poised to change how people view the island and its history.”

At one time, over 3,000 people lived within Mitchelville, and the town went on for miles. As a fully functioning and self-governed town, it had all the elements that it needed to be successful.

One resident, March Gardner, was the largest landowner. He owned a cotton mill, a grist mill and store, 200 acres and rented 500 homes. Back then, as today, land ownership was a significant part of Mitchelville and the Gullah community. The personal value of historic Gullah land that has been held on to for generations is well known. Recent discoveries add to that value.

As a part of the current Master Planning process, the Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park non-profit has been surveying the park’s 24 acres and mapping locations for potential building sites. Within the last few years, several exciting finds have been discovered throughout the park.

Katherine Seeber, a graduate student from Binghamton University’s Department of Anthropology in New York, is leading the dig, which she calls “pretty exciting.”

“Mitchelville is a very special place,” Seeber said. “The older trees on the property are important because it’s where people gathered, cooked, made baskets and nets. The work that they are doing is based on context. Imagine doing something repetitive in the same place. The depths of items found represent various time periods based on how compacted they are.”

“It’s very cool to make an educated guess as to where Mitchelville ancestors lived and find hot spots where activities were done. Eventually, they will be able to have a map based on the surveys to see these hot spots.”

Using magnetometry and ground-penetrating radar, researchers found a full brick hearth, as well as the outlines of what they believe to be the footprint of a home, a praise house, and several items of colonoware, ceramic items made only by enslaved people.

Items from the island have been compared to similar pieces found from Savannah to Charleston, and each of them has been identified as being unique to Hilton Head. The Gullah considered pottery a prized possession that was passed down for generations. As they moved around the island, which would have been a two- to three-hour walk, they took their ancestral belongings with them.

“You can’t take your ancestors with you, but you can take their items with you. It’s a way to remind you of a place that you came from,” Seeber said. “Some of the most powerful parts of what we have are items from our past. In the future, we might be able to track down the specific potter and where they lived.”

This isn’t the first time that archeological work has been done on the site. Therefore, the current dig has yielded a lot more results than expected. In one area, researchers uncovered several hundred ceramic vessels known to be produced by enslaved people during the 1600-1700s in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and the Caribbean. 

Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park

“Enslaved people came with the knowledge of how to produce ceramic. Finding the ceramics was unexpected,” Seeber said. “We had thought that we would find other types of daily life, like nails, glass, bones or other types of cooking ware and scattered pieces.”

So far, the Mitchelville dig has shown serious intention or effort as indicated when one object, in particular, was found. Researchers realized that that area was not only special, but also religious. The types of ceramics that have been found were used in religious ceremonies and could have been bought or traded in the 1800s. 

“We’ve pulled more than 400 pieces,” Seeber said. “We have found more objects than we expected. It wasn’t an accident to have found so many pieces within feet of each other.”

Most of the items, including whole pots, were made from island clay. That was because the Gullah were isolated on the island.

“It was very common for the skilled Gullah within the community to make things that they needed,” Seeber said. She mentioned one pot in particular that “was found like it was dropped and left. It wasn’t a beautiful ceramic, but it was thick with designs.”

Seeber expects to have the raw results processed by the spring and be able to see maps by May. The remainder of the project should be finished by November 2021 so that it can be added into Mitchelville’s Master Plan. 

“Mitchelville offers more meat to the story of South Carolina and what it added to American history,” Seeber said.

“Once we open, people can pull into the trail and come into the Lowcountry. The timing is good for us. People are looking to connect to their lineage.”