Artifact of the Week: Lead Ball


Two views of our Artifact of the Week, a lead ball that appears to have been chewed by human teeth. Cinnamon Bay, St. John Islands, Virgin Islands National Park. SEAC Accesssion 156


Civil war surgeons kit: a box of reasons to bite the bullet? Credit: Wikimedia Commons user Quadell.

“Bite the bullet.” If you’ve never heard this phrase then you’ve probably lived a charmed life. The idiom generally refers to enduring something difficult, unpleasant, or painful, and unavoidable. Its etymology usually involves a military inevitability or unpleasantry.

For example, it is often suggested that patients undergoing surgery without anesthesia (i.e. wounded soldiers in the field) were given a bullet to clench between their teeth as a way to cope with extreme pain. Other sources associate the expression with the mid-nineteenth century British phrase “refused to bite the cartridge” referring to native Indian soldiers who mutinied during Indian Rebellion of 1857. In this case, “biting the cartridge” refers to biting open a paper cartridge containing a lead ball and gun powder to load a rifle. The British army in the mid-nineteenth century greased their cartridges with pork or beef fat to keep them dry. Consuming pork is forbidden in Islam and consuming beef forbidden in Hindusim. It has been suggested that these matters of religious freedom directly influenced the Mulsim and Hindu soldiers’ refusal to bite the cartridge, and the punishment they received for their disobedience led to the military mutiny that precipitated the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

sepoy rifle load from guns_dot_com

Rifle loading instructions for Indian soldiers. Step 1 shows a soldier “biting the cartridge.”

Our Artifact of the Week wasn’t found in India but the West Indies. 

It is a lead ball that may have been chewed by human teeth

recovered in 1964 during  power line and water line installation at Cinnamon Bay, St. John Island at Virgin Islands National Park.


Another view of the chewed lead ball.

Unfortunately, some of the provenience data has been lost and the sampling procedure is unknown (Hanson 1969). A brass side plate for a musket was recovered from the same trench and the caliber of the ball is in the general vicinity of a musket ball. Another lead ball was found with a hole bored through it possibly to be used as fishing weight.


Two views of a lead ball with a hole through it also recovered durin gthe 1964 trench excavation at Cinnamon Bay, St. John Island, Virgin Islands National Park.


Source: Wikipedia

Were lead balls used as some sort of toxic, makeshift confection? Not likely. Lead poisoning may be one of the oldest known hazards of its kind. The ancient Romans knew that lead was toxic. Yet they used lead acetate or so-called sugar of lead as a food sweetener.   However, a soldier in the 1777 Battle of Walloomsac, New York wrote that he chewed a bullet to promote salivation (Sivilich 2016:109).

Of course, maybe the ball wasn’t chewed by a human being at all. Many lead balls chewed by rodents, pigs, and even deer have been found on battlefields. In some cases, the shape of the markings on the ball are a clue to the kind of animal that did the chewing (Sivilich 2016:102). For example, deer teeth can leave a horseshoe shaped pattern of impressions. Rodents often leave long parallel grooves from their incisors. Wild and domestic swine may leave markings similar to those made by human teeth but the size and depth of the impressions are usually greater. In fact, swine can flatten lead balls with their powerful jaw muscles, sometimes swallowing and partly digest them.

Battlefield archaeologist Daniel M. Sivilich conducted several experiments in which he chewed musket balls cast from lead alloy and 99.9 percent pure lead using different teeth. While this kind of procedure is not recommended given the dangers of lead poisoning, his results suggest that some lead balls were chewed by people.


Interested in learning more about historic ammunition?

Check out Musket Ball and Small Shot Identification: A Guide (Sivilich 2016) featuring the work of SEAC’s very own Michael Seibert. Chapter 7 is devoted to chewed musket balls.

Though hardly more than speculation, it is possible that the military artifacts from the trenches at Cinnamon Bay found their way into the archeological record during the 1733 African revolt. Briefly, the 1730s were particularly volatile in the social and environmental history of St. John Island.


1848 notice of emancipation (Danish National Archives).

Marronage, the self-emancipation of enslaved Africans by running away, was especially high. Attempting to suppress marronage, the Danish government instituted extremely brutal methods for punishing disobedience among enslaved Africans and maroons. In 1733, drought, two hurricanes, and insect plagues decimated island crops and fresh water supplies dwindled. Combined, these developments strained inherently taut relations between Dutch planters and enslaved Africans.

Among the St. John maroons were African royalty, noblemen and women, and wealthy merchants who had been captured as prisoners of war and sold to Danish slavers in the 1730s. The revolt is believed to have been orchestrated by several these enslaved aristocrasts – Bolombo, an Adambe king, Aquashi, an Aquambo prince, and Kanta, an Amina nobleman. After a six month standoff, the rebellion was defeated by French and Danish soldiers, slaves from other islands, and a militia of free creoles. The abolition of slavery in the Dutch West Indies and the emancipation of enslaved Africans would not happen until 1848.

 This is the second post on uniquely used military artifacts from Virgin Islands National Park.

Check out the first: Grapeshot from Christiansted.


Video and other info about archeology at Cinnamon Bay from the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park

Explore the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park blog!


Sivilich, Daniel M.

2016 Musket Ball and Small Shot Identification: A Guide. University of Oklahoma Press. Norman.

Hanson, Lee H., Jr.

1969 A Study of the Artifacts Recovered from Two Construction Trenches Through the Cinnamon Bay Site, St.John Island, Virgin Islands National Park. Manuscript on file at the Southeast Archeological Center, Tallahassee, Florida.

SEAC Honored with 2016 Preservation Award


Two Southeast Archeological Center archeologists are named among the winners of a 2016 Preservation Award from the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation!

According to the Florida Trust’s press release:

Outstanding Achievement: Byrd Hammock Archaeological Site, Wakulla County

The Byrd Hammock archaeological site includes significant remains of two prehistoric cultures including two village sites, each with its own burial mound. It is also a site that has been heavily looted, and without Federal law enforcement protection, was in danger of being destroyed and the information it contains being lost forever. Individuals significant to protecting the site are Dr. Michael Russo and Jeffery Shanks of the National Park Service’s Southeast Archeological Center for their professional research at the Byrd Hammock site, the St. Marks Refuge Association, Inc. for successfully securing the donation of the site for the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, thereby affording it Federal protection, and the Rev. Lila Byrd Brown and family for their generous donation of 160 acres of land that includes 85% of this important archaeological site. Byrd Hammock is designated a National Historic Place.

russo and shanks

SEAC archeologists Dr. Michael Russo (left) and Jeffery Shanks (right) at Byrd Hammock

Did you know that the Byrd Hammock Preservation Project also received the Southeast Region’s Hartzog Park Volunteer Program Award?


Check out some other Byrd Hammock Preservation Project posts here!

Federal Crimes at Mammoth Cave National Park


The view from within a cave at Mammoth Cave National Park.

Ask a Southeastern archeologist if she studies cavemen…and she may tell you that she does! SEAC archeologists Robert Hellmann and Timothy Roberts have just returned from a week of site condition assessments at Mammoth Cave National Park (MACA).

MACA is part of the longest cave system in the world.


Tradition holds that enslaved cave guide Nick Bransford purchased his freedom by selling eyeless fish to park visitors.

It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve. The park includes approximately 53,000 acres of topographically diverse above-ground terrain and hundreds of miles of subterranean caverns with their own geological, social, and industrial history. Rivers, sinks, springs, creeks, and swallets water the land and the caves alike. The diverse range of plants and animals at MACA is a product of the unique environments protected by the park.

More than a half million people visit MACA every year to tour the caves, camp, hike, bike, and horseback ride. Unfortunately, some visitors engage in other, often illegal activities that damage, sometimes irreparably, natural and cultural resources within the park.


Disturbance caused by a fallen tree root ball at a MACA archeological site.

It is the mission of the National Park Service to “preserve, unimpaired, the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” The preservation and integrity of cultural resources, including archeological sites in National Parks are threatened by plants, animals, wind, and water. Burrowing critters can tear up archeological deposits from the top down and vice versa. A living tree’s roots can grow straight through archeological deposits. Trees can fall onto historic structures and the roots balls of falling trees can rip large sections of sites right from the ground. The adverse effects of flooding and erosion can almost go without further comment and wildfires present their own set of preservation challenges.

But by far, the worst and most preventable negative impacts to archeological sites are willfully caused by human beings.


Hand-carved sign at the entrance to Crystal Cave reads “Great Crystal Cave Discovered Dec 18, 1917 by Floyd Collins

In a previous post, we explored the juxtaposition of historic graffiti as a cultural resource and modern graffiti as destructive vandalism at MACA. But, as an eyesore that also contributes to ecological degradation, graffiti pales in comparison to looting. Revolutionary and Civil War battlefield sites across the Southeast have suffered from unauthorized excavations by selfish metal detectorists. Native American burial and sub-structural mounds have suffered from the wanton shovels of pot hunters.

Like prehistoric mounds, rockshelters are often beacons on the landscape. They are silent repositories created by the social and ceremonial activities of past Native Americans, and imbued by them with spiritual significance in the eyes of their living descendants. Unfortunately, these sites are also beacons for so-called relic hunters.


View from within a small MACA rockshelter.

While no prehistoric mounds have been identified at MACA, there are more than 150 rockshelters among the park’s documented archeological sites. During our recent round of site condition assessments we visited 18. They ranged in size from that of a covered city bus stop to that of a Broadway theater stage. Some are set high on steep ridges. Others are just above creek terraces next to spectacular waterfalls. Some are remote and others are accessible just off of park roads and hiking, biking, and equestrian trails. They range from being possibly unknown to any living people save archeologists, resource managers, and park law enforcement officers, to those regularly visited by hikers, illegally used a campsites, defaced by vandals, and attacked by looters.

Take nothing but pictures…

w250x249_THIEF OF TIME croppedThe damage caused by looting goes beyond the willful destruction of archeological sites in violation of the Archaeological Resource Protection Act; defacing government property in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1361; theft of government property in violation of 18 U.S.C. 641; disturbing human remains and funerary offerings in violation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

With rare exceptions, unauthorized removal of artifacts and excavation of archeological sites destroys context, the most important concept in archeology. This is like tearing pages out of a one-of-a-kind book, and becomes particularly upsetting at sites with the potential to contain intact stratigraphy.


A large rockshelter above a creek and alluvial terrace.

When diagnostic artifacts are stolen, features churned up and destroyed, and organic materials that can be radiocarbon dating are displaced, much of the potential information these objects contain can become essentially obsolete. The goal of an archeologist is not simply to find neat stuff but to understand the relationships between neat (and not-so-neat) stuff to answer questions about past human experience. The relationships are key, and context is the relationships.

Some rockshelters in Kentucky contain deposits extending more than 10,000 years back to the Paleoindian period; others have evidence of more recent historic uses. They provide excellent opportunities for testing hypotheses about past climate, settlement and mobility, subsistence, economic organization, trade and exchange and other big picture questions regarding change through time that archeology is especially suited to answer.


MACA rockshelter with historic and prehistoric artifacts.

Even seemingly “simpler” questions about how people have used rockshelters through time would be nearly impossible to answer without archeological investigations.

For example:

What researchers are able to do with paleofeces is remarkable! While analyzing 100 specimens of prehistoric dried human feces from Salts Cave at MACA, archeologists Patty Jo Watson and Richard Yarnell (1966) identified wild strawberry seeds in the same specimens as hickory nuts and acorns, among other species. Since the berries were likely eaten immediately whereas the hickory and acorns could be stored with relative ease, this data strongly suggested that the end-user who created the coprolite visited the cave sometime in the late spring or early summer.

Thirty years later,
chromatography and radioimmunoassay were used to measure levels of testosterone and estradiol in


Example of paleofeces from Furna do Estrago. Wikimedia Commons.

both modern fecal reference samples and paleofecal samples from Salts Cave (Sobolik et al. 1996). That is to say, researchers can test whether a coprolite was made by a man or woman!

Other important insights from paleofeces analyses include the nature of health and nutrition, human parasites, and evidence for prehistoric plant domestication.

Park resource manager Larry Johnson accompanied us to two rockshelters where he had observed evidence of unauthorized excavations. He described looting as a pathology; a compulsive or obsessive behavior tantamount to an addiction. For some, the excitement is derived from the hunt for artifacts more than the objects themselves. He related stories from when he served as a park law enforcement officer and observed looters in plain sight so focused on collecting that they were unaware of his presence until he had announced himself.


SEAC archeologist Robert Hellamann and MACA resource manager Larry Johnson at a rockshelter with evidence of unauthorized excavation. Note the spoil piles from looter’s pits just below the center of the frame.


It is illegal to harvest wild ginseng at MACA.

One park employee remarked that it is almost as though there’s a fringe group of people who are essentially career criminals bent on stealing from the public for private profit. At MACA, illegal artifact collecting and the illicit antiquities trade often go hand-in-hand with littering, growing marijuana and illegally harvesting ginseng in the park, the possession and sale of illegal firearms, poaching dear and turkey, and the like.


Eastern Ratsnake

There are plenty of rattlesnakes at MACA, but this eastern ratsnake was the only serpent we encountered.

The disregard of law and public property, or at best carelessness and selfishness, that accompanies a relic hunting mentality apparently also seems to lend itself to conspiracy theories that somehow justify  the looting of sites. Of those shared with us by park personnel, my personal favorite revolves around the abundance of deer in the park. At one point, there were so many deer in the park that some were humanely captured by resource managers and released into Wildlife Management Areas. The conspiracy theory holds that the deer were being exchanged for rattlesnakes that were then dropped in crates with parachutes from black UN helicopters into the park. No one is quite sure how this patently false rumor was started…the Onion, perhaps?


A remote rockshelther hidden by vegetation.

Maintaining a park service presence at rockshelters is a challenge given the sheer number of them in the park, their wide distribution, and in most cases remote locations. Furthermore, park visitors are allowed to visit rockshelters. However, they are not permitted to remove, deface, or otherwise disturb the natural and cultural resources associated with a rockshelter…or anywhere else in the park.

America depends on you to serve as a steward of our cultural resources. Be a part of the solution: If You See Something, Say Something!

If you visit a rockshelter or other archeological site and see evidence of vandalism or disturbance, notify park staff. If you know someone who engages in these activities, let them not that it’s not cool and they are in violation of federal law.


During this trip, SEAC archeologist also evaluated the condition of a range of other site types including open-air prehistoric lithic scatters, historic homesteads and stores, and Civilian Conservation Corps camps. They even found time to map a newly rediscovered cemetery.

Check out this interactive online map of cemeteries at Mammoth Cave National Park!


Mapping Minyard Cemetery.


20160427_100811Read about one MACA visitor’s experience! 

Or check out MACA park ranger Cole Goodman’s #FindYourPark story!

Interested in more modern human habitations in Kentucky? Check out this award-winning blog!


Watson, Patty Jo and Richard A. Yarnell

1966 Archaeological and Paleoethnobotanical Investigations in Salts Cave, Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky. American Antiquity 31(6):842-849.

Sobolik KD, KJ Gremillion, PL Whitten, and PJ Watson

1996 Sex determination of prehistoric human paleofeces. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 101(2):283-90.


Artifact of the Week: Clay Pipe Fragments

_Figure 08-81 NATC A 27639 B 27638

A. Pipe stem fragment; B. Pipe bowl fragment

WikiProject_Scouting_fleur-de-lis_no_scroll.pngOur current artifacts of the week are a clay pipe stem and a pipe bowl fragment featuring an embossed fleur-de-lis recovered by SEAC archeologists during excavations at Fort Rosalie at Natchez National Historical Park. For many of us in the Southeast, the fleur-de-lis is an iconic symbol of Louisiana and the New Orleans Saints. Some may associate it with the emblem of the Boy Scouts of America. Traditionally, however, the fleur-de-lis is the symbol of French royalty.

Two earthenware pipe bowls found at Fort Rosalie are marked with a fleur-de-lis .

Both of these pipe fragments and three additional fragments (two stems and one heel) appear to be made of the same material, a fine, sand-tempered earthenware, and may represent locally manufactured tobacco pipes. The stem fragments are heavy, and the only one with an intact bore measured 11/16 inches in diameter. The wide diameter of the stem and its relatively heavy construction are consistent with known examples of eighteenth and nineteenth century “reed stem” clay tobacco pipes (Noël Hume 1969; Murphy 1974, 1976, 2009).

During the last half of the sixteenth century, smoking tobacco in clay pipes became a popular indulgence in Europe. Inexpensive and sold in large quantities to people at all economic levels, clay pipes became commonplace and remained so until the beginning of the twentieth century.

We’re excited to share this draft 3D scan of one of the fleur-de-lis pipe bowl fragments! SEAC is in the beginning stages of applying this technology to our curation and interpretation. Megan-Suzanne Reed, an  Archeological Technician in SEAC’s NAGPRA and Applied Sciences division, is working on producing 3D scans of several other artifacts. Stay tuned for more 3D imagery and animation from SEAC’s collections!



Two 3D renderings of the fleur-de-lis pipe bowl. Top: “Matcap”; Bottom: “Classic”. Generated using Sketchfab

Please check out the absolutely excellent The Virtual Curation Museum blog for more images and information about 3D scanning!

A bit on Fort Rosalie…



Jean Baptiste LeMoyne, Sieur d’Bienville

Fort Rosalie was initially constructed in 1716 as a palisaded fort on a high bluff during the first Natchez War. This year is the 300th anniversary of the establishment of Fort Rosalie, and what most consider the founding of Natchez. Construction materials and corvée labor were provided by the Natchez Indians under the direction of Jean Baptiste LeMoyne, Sieur d’Bienville. The wooden fort was burned to the ground during the second Natchez War in 1729 and rebuilt as earthworks in 1733.


Antoine de la Mothe, Sieur de Cadillac

It is worth noting that the Louisiana governor, Antoine de la Mothe, sieur de Cadillac‘s refusal to smoke the peace pipe, or calumet, and renew alliances with the Natchez factored directly into the violence that precipitated building Fort Rosalie.

In 1763, the British took control of the fort renaming it Fort Panmure. In 1779, the Spanish took control of the Natchez District including the fort. The area was included in the territory transferred to the United States in 1795, evacuated by the Spanish in 1798, and by 1799 was no longer used as a military fortification.


One of John James Audobon’s 1822 paintings of Natchez. Note the Fort Rosalie earth embankment just to the left of the tree in the foreground.

John James Audobon noted in 1820 that the fort was the location of the town gallows and that the old moat was used for burying slaves. Recent collaborative archival research suggests that a considerable section of the fort was destroyed during a landslide in 1869 (Vincas Steponaitis, personal communication 2013).

davis dickson rosalie reconstruction

A view of Jefferson Davis Dickson, Jr.’s 1941 Rosalie “reconstruction.”

Jefferson Davis Dickson, Jr., veteran, sports promoter, and entrepreneur, purchased the bluff top tract that included the Fort Rosalie site in 1939 or 1940. By 1941, a conjectured replica of the fort and Indian village had been constructed at the site as a tourist attraction. One of the log buildings that functioned as the gift shop for the attraction remains at the corner of Canal Street and DA Biglane Street and will be used in some interpretive, commercial, or administrative capacity by the park for the site. Check out the Historic Structures Report on the Old Fort Rosalie Gift Shop here!

old fat mamas bldg

The Old Fort Rosalie Gift Shop, part of Dickson’s reconstruction, now at 500 South Canal Street in Natchez, Mississippi.

Fort Rosalie is not currently open to the public but the park is working to change that. However, the fort isn’t the only site managed by the park…


Check out this blog and video discussing two other important historic archeological sites in Natchez! 



SEAC archeologist Rusty Simmons

Have you been following Natchez History Minutes?

Check out these informative videos on the park’s website and Facebook page!

The Natchez History Minute below is narrated

by SEAC’s very own

Rusty Simmons.



Mississippi Department of Archives and History. 1991    Fort Rosalie Site – Survey and Evaluation of Architectural Resources. Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Jackson.

Murphy, James L. 1974 Nineteenth Century Reed-Stem Tobacco Pipes from Mogadore, Ohio. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 44(4):52-60.

1976 Reed Stem Tobacco Pipes from Point Pleasant, Clermont County, Ohio. Northeast Historical Archaeology 5(1):12-27.

2009 A Moravian Clay Pipe from Grape Vine Town, Belmont County, Ohio. Ohio Archeologists 59(2):21-23.

Noël Hume, Ivor. 1969 A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

SEAC Honored with Hartzog Award


Left to Right: Dr. Mike Russo, Thadra Stanton, Jeff Shanks, and Andrew McFeaters

The Southeast Archeological Center just learned that the Byrd Hammock Preservation Project was chosen as the Southeast Region’s Hartzog Park Volunteer Program Award winner!
The efforts of park VIPs and SEAC’s very own Andrew McFeaters, Thadra Stanton, Jeff Shanks, and Mike Russo of the National Historic Landmarks and External Contracts program have been officially recognized. As regional winners they go on to compete nationally.

Wish them the best of luck in the next round of competition

on Facebook and Twitter (@NPSSEAC)


Former director George B. Hartzog, Jr. (1964-1972) and his wife, Helen donated funds to the National Park Foundation in commemoration of the efforts of volunteers. The Hartzog Award uses part of those funds to recognize the exemplary contributions of volunteers, groups, and park VIP programs.

The Byrd Hammock Archeological Project is multi-agency undertaking that began in the fall of 2014 and continued through the summer of 2015. It was made possible through a partnership between four government agencies, two non-profits, two civic groups, 21 volunteers, four students from Florida State University, five students under Dr. Rebecca Saunders from Louisiana State University and four interns from the Student Conservation Association.

8Wa30-2015-Jirye in Plaza

VIP Jirye Kang in a Byrd Hammock excavation unit

By the end of the summer of 2015, the project had opened 28 excavation units and over 250 shovel tests. Two local newspapers and one local television news station ran stories about the project. In addition, tours and outreach opportunities were provided to civic groups, home school groups, and Boy Scout troops.

Check out the Tallahassee Democrat’s story and video here!

The Wakulla News story here!

USFS_Logo.svgThe project has led to the protection of the site which will soon be connected, via a spur trail, to the Florida National Scenic Trail, managed by the U.S. Forest ServiceToday SEAC is working on nominating the saved site as a National Historic Landmark with our VIPs performing much of the necessary lab work for our excavated materials. Once the materials have been analyzed, they will be curated by the Florida Division of Historical Resources.DHR

Byrd Hammock

Byrd Hammock VIP washing artifacts in the SEAC wet lab


Here’s a bit of the back story

FWS_logoSEAC learned early last year of three properties, part of an archeological site listed on the National Register of Historic Places and located next to our DOI sister-agency the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, that were in danger of development. Together with the Refuge, SEAC jumped into action to preserve the site with the help of our VIPs. To begin with, the VIPs helped survey the properties with shovel test excavations, defining the extent of the site’s buried components. Then they helped conduct a laser transit survey to create a map of the site to present to the Refuge.

20140808_125004 Andrew on level setting grid for magnetometer at Bird Hammock North 8WA30

SEAC Archeologist Andrew McFeaters sets up an auto level

4FCv-gFn_400x400The Refuge was interested in purchasing the property after seeing the map…but could not afford to do so immediately. SEAC turned to the Archaeological Conservancy, a national 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to acquiring and preserving archaeological sites discovered on private land. They agreed to purchase the site on the condition that they be provided with an archeological survey report in short order that would allow them to identify only those portions of the properties that contained parts of the prehistoric site. This would allow them to parcel off and negotiate for purchasing two of the three portions of the site needed for preservation. With the help of our VIPs, SEAC undertook an immediate survey and provided the requested report to the Archaeological Conservancy, who purchased two of the critical parcels.

Comparison of Byrd topo to midden as of 3-24-16fsu_seminoles_logo_fsu_same
lsu logoBut one part of the site remained to be obtained for preservation. Once again we turned to our VIPs. To demonstrate to the owners of the property that the site was worth saving and encourage the family that a donation to the Refuge should be considered, our VIPs worked with two universities, Florida State University and Louisiana State University to conduct large-scale excavations at the site. Presented with the results of the Volunteer project, the family donated 160 acres of property, including the greater part of the Byrd Hammock site, to the St. Marks Refuge Association!

st marks friends group

All told, the volunteer hours for the project amount to more than 2,500!


Interested in volunteering at a National Park? Find more information here!

Interested in an internship with the Student Conservation Association? Find more information here! 

ICYMI: Follow the link to previous posts on the Byrd Hammock Preservation Project!

Michelle ST

Did you know 

SEAC Compliance division’s newest addition,

Archeological Technician Michelle Gray,

cut her teeth in the Southeast as an SCA intern?

Read about her experiences here!

And more about

SEACs Interns here!

Civil War Prison Camp, Thomasville, GA

sign at site 2
Archeologists from the Southeast Archeological Center partnered with the City of Thomasville, and with Federal Bureau of Investigation units from Jacksonville and Tampa, Florida, Thomasville Police Department, and some local students and volunteers to investigate the site of a Civil War temporary prisoner of war camp in Thomasville, Georgia. The FBI was interested in working with archeologists as training for their Evidence Response Teams (ERT). Along with the participants, members of the community came out to the site with interest and enthusiasm for the work.

12512498_969389483098896_5776963864908967465_n (1)

Students flank either side of a ditch dug by enslaved African Americans to enclose the prison camp.


The Thomasville prison enclosure was demarcated with a 8 to 10-foot deep and 10 to 12-foot wide ditch dug by enslaved African Americans. Of the 32,000 prisoners held at the infamous Confederate military prison at what is now Andersonville National Historic Site in December 1864, 5000 were brought by train to Thomasville. They had been moved to several locations when officials, receiving news of Sherman’s devastating march to the sea, feared that liberating the prison was part of his agenda. Thomasville was one of these temporary locations. Other camps were established elsewhere for the rest of Andersonville’s prisoners and others from Camp Lawton at Millen, Georgia.


During the Thomasville prison camp’s two and a half week existence under the command of Colonel Henry Forno, hundreds of inmates died from illnesses that ran rampant through the camp. Some of the deceased are believed to have been buried in or moved to the “Methodist Cemetery”, that may be Laurel Hill Cemetery or Old Cemetery. Smallpox in particular took a massive toll on the inmates. Victims of the disease are believed to have possibly been buried in mass graves in the ditch surrounding the prison. Historic accounts also record that the camp was burned when the prisoners were removed and returned to Andersonville. Stories have circulated that some bodies may remain buried on the prison grounds.

Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) and search and recovery dogs, a.k.a. “cadaver dogs”, were used at the site prior to any excavation in the hopes of pinpointing areas where underground features and burials might be located. Several different dog teams gave similar alerts in the trench indicating the possible presence of human remains. The GPR also indicated the presence of anomalies consistent with graves in several areas.


Search and recovery dogs, trained to sniff out human remains, “hit on” several spots in the ditch.


Excavation unit with a wagon handle protruding from the profile (click to enlarge)

A series of systematically excavated units produced 19th and early 20th century artifacts. SEAC archeologist Jeffrey Shanks reminded visitors and trainees that these objects will still part of the history of the community. But, nothing could be specifically associated with the military occupation of the site and no identifiable human burials.


The excavation did reveal a thin layer of black organically-rich soil with evidence of burning at the bottom of the trench that appeared at the same level in multiple areas. Soil samples from this burn layer were collected and will be submitted for analysis to determine whether or not they contain the chemical signature of human decomposition.


SEAC osteologists Katie Miyar (far left) and Ian Pawn (far right), and public outreach coordinator Thadra Stanton (center) screening soil from the excavation units.

Check out the story in the Thomasville Times-Enterprise here!

The FBI’s ERT has worked with other archeologists in Florida to learn about excavation methods. Follow the link to watch a video of City of St. Augustine archaeologist Carl Halbirt teaching excavation methods to FBI agents.


SEAC archeologists and others will be speaking as part of the Thomas County Historical Society Spring Lecture Series.

The Chimneys: A Damage Assessment at a Task System Slave Village

Blue skies, a gentle breeze, birds chirping and 73 degrees. Swaying Spanish moss hanging from grandmother live oak trees and towering yaupon hollies. Tuesday March 1 was a beyond beautiful day for site condition assessments on Cumberland Island National Seashore. One could almost overlook some of the negative human impacts to the cultural heritage that makes The Chimneys such an important site. So-called for the brick and tabby chimneys arranged on rectangular grid, they are all that remain above ground of a village inhabited by the enslaved African Americans that worked the wealthy planter Robert Stafford’s main Sea Island cotton plantation on Cumberland Island.


Martin Pate‘s artistic interpretation of what the Chimneys may have looked like while Robert Stafford owned the plantation



Example of completely collapsed chimney

Though the chimneys, in various states of ruin and preservation, stand as silent sentinels to enslavement on Stafford’s plantation, the stabilizing scaffolding bracing some of them attest to their slow subsidence and would-be inevitable collapse. Indeed, some chimneys have collapsed. But, while perhaps distracting from a certain structured aesthetic, their collapse does not detract from their historical and archeological significance. Some chimneys are complete and free standing while others are piles of rubble beneath living cedar trees and intruded upon by armadillo burrows. Some have been repaired though not technically restored. The chimneys were built with hand-made clay and tabby bricks held together with tabby mortar. The “repairs” employ cement.


A chimney with supportive scaffolding


Primus Mitchell was among those formerly enslaved who returned to live on Cumberland Island after the Civil War

After the Civil War, some African-Americans formerly enslaved on Cumberland Island returned. They established a community at Brickhill Bluff and may have reoccupied cabins at the Chimneys and Rayfield, another slave village farther north along the Main Road. Despite the myth that Stafford burned the village cabins to spite former slaves who refused to work for him, archeological excavations conducted in 2004, 2006 and 2008 have revealed to no such evidence.

Today, the chimneys sit a in a privately owned parcel behind a house that was the winter home of the late Lucy Sprague Foster, a Carnegie descendant and one of the island matriarchs in a line stretching back through history to Caty Greene.


Like the ruins of the Carnegie mansion, Dungeness, the Chimneys are one of many cultural resources on Cumberland Island listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Site condition assessments are an opportunity to evaluate damage to archeological sites caused by human or natural agents, and to identify possible future adverse effects to cultural resources.


Large pile debris from tree removal at The Chimneys. The large chimney in the background is interpreted as part of a hospital or communal building for the enslaved residents.

The most apparent anthropogenic adverse effect at the Chimneys was brought about through the removal of several large trees. Whether they had fallen before they were cut up and moved by means of heavy machinery is not clear but the places where they stood are heavily disturbed. Historic building debris and artifacts are visible on the surface, some of it apparently moved to help fill the holes.


A view of some of the recent ground disturbance at the Chimneys

Documenting this disturbance was our primary motivation for returning to the site after a preliminary and opportune condition assessment was conducted on a rain day during our fieldwork in February. On that trip, principal investigator Robert Hellmann noted that one of the chimneys closest to the entrance road from the Main Road has collapsed since his last visit. One chimney closest to the Foster house has been rigged as a barbecue grill.


Chimney used a grill

The archeology of enslavement at Cumberland Island is unique among the national parks of the Southeast. Slave labor on the rice and Sea Island cotton plantations of the barrier island and coastal districts of Georgia and the Carolinas was organized differently than other plantations in the Deep South. The quintessential image of the toiling mob of enslaved African Americans dressed in rags and doubled over in cotton fields from sunrise to sunset all the while closely monitored by an armed, horse-mounted and whip-wielding white overseer. Though certainly this narrative captures part of the day-to-day antebellum experience of many of the millions of enslaved workers in the southern United States, it does not depict what life was like for so many others. In contrast to this monotonous and closely supervised system of labor organization, called the Gang System, enslaved laborers at plantations along the Georgia and South Carolina coasts and Sea Islands were organized in a different way: the Task System.

Morgan 1982 tasking table

Part of a table showing tasking requirements produced by Philip Morgan (1982:570)

Briefly, the task system required each individual to  complete a certain amount of work each day dictated by that person’s age, gender, and ability. Once the task was completed, that individual was free to engage in their own pursuits. Industrious persons used their time after tasks to assist others in their work, to hunt, fish, and tend personal gardens and livestock, to produce crafts, and to rest and visit. Though tasks were difficult and a challenge to complete with time to spare, there are accounts of enslaved individuals accumulating enough money through their own ingenuity to purchase their freedom. It was not uncommon for planters themselves to purchase goods from their slaves!

Learn more about The Task System here!




Ammunition found during excavations at the Chimneys.

Ammunition was found in many of the units associated with the chimneys as well as a few gun flints. Contrary to more provocative hypotheses that envisioned stockpiling for a slave revolt that never materialized, these weapons were likely used for hunting to supplement rations. Wild animals made up a considerable proportion of the faunal remains found at the site.


Other artifacts reflect crafts that enslaved African-Americans produced for personal consumption, trade, and sale at markets. The proceeds from these exchanges could have been used to acquire other resources or social influence.

Excavations revealed different assemblages associated with different cabins that may reflect the relative self-determination of the enslaved families that lived in them. One chimney facade sports a whelk shell set into the mortar centered above the preserved wooden lintel; a personal touch of the presumably enslaved former inhabitants

Maintaining families on plantations served many practical purposes of a planter including natural increase of the enslaved population and likely promoted a sense of place, stability, and responsibility that might curb attempts to run away.That there were enslaved families at Robert Stafford’s plantations is suggested by an 1864 census of Fernandina, Florida.The document includes the names, ages, status (i.e. “Contraband”), last residence, date of arrival, and former owner (if enslaved) of the individuals in the town. Groups of 3 to 5 persons with the same last name, residence, date of arrival, and owner (i.e. “R. Stafford”) including a man and woman in their 20s to 40s and children seem to describe nuclear families.

1864 fernandina census excerpt

Excerpt from the 1864 military census of Fernandina Beach, Florida. Not the names, ages, dates of arrival, and former owner shared by some of the individuals.


Photo Credit: Chris Viola

In 2004, former SEAC archeologist Steven Kidd organized a presentation and tour of the Chimneys for descendants of African-Americans enslaved on Stafford’s plantations. The event was a successful and rare opportunity for archeologists to help living relatives connect directly with the places their ancestors lived. Read a bit about that project here! 

Check out two other blog posts on African-American history: 

Blacks in Grey: Confederates on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Fort McPherson Meets the Forks of the Road: The Nexus of Slavery, Freedom, and Resistance In Civil War-era Natchez, Mississippi.

Our assessment complete, we returned to the dock in St. Mary’s and drove back to Tallahassee to anoint our unexpected sunburns and process the data we collected. Looking forward to more work at Cumberland Island though hopefully under more auspicious circumstances!


Don’t forget to check out some other SEAC posts on Cumberland Island National Seashore here!



Destructive Dynamism: Imperiled sites on Cumberland Island National Seashore

Cumberland Island formed 18,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age. Measuring approximately 17 miles (27.4 km) from north to south and 3 miles (4.8 km) across at its widest point, it is the largest and southernmost barrier island in Georgia and the only one that has remained largely undeveloped. As such, it is a haven for a broad range of flora and fauna and a time capsule of equally diverse and unique historic and archeological resources. The 100-mile-long (160.9 km) Georgia coast is bordered by more than a dozen other Sea Islands separated from each other by tidal inlets. The Georgia Sea Islands are, in turn, part of chain of barrier islands that extends from New England down the east coast around the Gulf of Mexico and south to Mexico. Serving as buffers by absorbing storm energy, the Sea Islands are the mainland’s first line of deference against the wind and waves of the Atlantic Ocean.


Cumberland Island was designated as a National Seashore in 1972 to conserve the landscape, and natural and cultural resources, for the enjoyment and education of present and future generations. The park boundaries encompass 56.9 mi2 (147.4 km2) of beach, salt marsh, and maritime forest, including more than 9800 acres of congressionally designated wilderness, the most in a national seashore on the east coast. The island is only accessible by boat and visitation is limited to 300 persons per day. Still, every year tens of thousands of visitors travel to Cumberland Island by ferry to explore the island’s varied ecotonal landscapes, remarkable biodiversity, and unique historic sites. There is easily more than a day’s worth of experiences to be had at Cumberland Island and visitors are invited to spend the night on the island. Accommodations include primitive campsites and for those less rustically-inclined, the privately managed Greyfield Inn built in 1900 by Thomas and Lucy Carnegie offers charming suites and their own guided tours of the island.


A superimposed historic image of members of the Carnegie on the steps of Dungeness mansion. The ruined building that burned in 1959, is one of 87 structures on the island listed on the National Register of  Historic Places.

There are four major historic districts and 87 structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places on the island. Cultural resources in the park represent thousands of years of Native American prehistory, Spanish missionization and British colonization through the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries,GUGE-logo the War of 1812, the era of antebellum plantations, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the gilded age of the Carnegie and Rockefeller families during the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Cumberland Island is also part of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.

While modern development on the island has been limited, invasive plant and animal species were propagated over the years for aesthetic, recreational, and practical reasons. There is a large population of feral pigs that threaten native plant and animal communities, impact buried cultural resources, and pose a danger to visitors and park employees. Non-native plants like bamboo, oleander, and Chinese tallow are a challenge to resource managers because, in some cases, they are part of the island’s historic cultural landscape but still negatively impact the indigenous ecology. Likewise, the herds of horses in the park are non-native and despite being a draw for visitors, spur erosion by eating dune vegetation and trampling paths to the beach. Efforts to manage the adverse effects of these invasive species are on-going but the most dramatic impacts to the natural and cultural resources of the park have been brought on by increased storm activity during the past several years concomitant with warmer sea water and higher sea levels.

A perusal of just a handful of the imperiled archeological sites at Cumberland Island National Seashore…

Barrier islands are dynamic landforms constantly being reshaped by wind, waves, and currents. While the shifting and natural redeposition of sediment on barrier islands by waves and currents can in effect restore soil to areas scoured during storms, the process does little to protect buried archeological sites exposed and washed away by storm surges, storm tides, and other climate-related erosional forces. With an eye for the preservation of archeological sites, parts of the back-barrier, or western shoreline of the island look as though they have experienced a natural disaster.

Prehistoric Shell Middens

Sea camp to dungeness shell midden erosion example

Shell midden exposed along the eroding back-barrier bluff on Cumberland Island.

Last July and this February, SEAC archeologists recently conducted a series of surveys to delineate the extent of prehistoric archeological sites identified in the 1970s. These sites were recorded by former SEAC director John Ehrenhard in 1975 by shell midden deposits visible on the ground surface and along the eroding bluffs on the island’s west side.

Learn more about SEAC’s recent survey here!



Cumberland Island’s natural dynamism becomes fragility when compounded by dramatic climatic events like hurricanes. The last major hurricane (Category 3 or stronger) to hit Cumberland Island made landfall in 1898 when an almost 5 m storm surge was recorded at Brunswick, Georgia, 10 miles up the coast from Cumberland. Since 1911, no hurricane stronger than Category 2 has made landfall in Georgia. As tropical cyclones travel up the east coast near the state, their centers are usually directed away from the mainland. This pattern is partly explained by the route of the Gulf Stream, the strong warm water current that affects the paths of Atlantic hurricanes which runs 50 miles offshore from Savannah. But, the eye of a hurricane does not need to make landfall for tropical cyclones to cause major damage to resources on islands and coasts.

Fort Saint Andrew

Fort Saint Andrew was one of two earth and wood forts built on Cumberland Island in 1736 by the British colonial military under the command of James Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia. It was abandoned by the British in 1742 and subsequently occupied by the Spanish for two days before it was set ablaze. During the hyperactive 2005 hurricane season, Tropical Storm Tammy dumped more than 20 inches of rain on Cumberland Island and surrounding areas. The storm contributed to increased erosion, particularly along the shoreline in the northwest portion of the island, where the site of Fort Saint Andrew is located.

Fort St Andrews.JPG

The location of Fort St. Andrew as depicted an 1802 map by surveyor John McKinnon. Note the difference between the shape of the land on the overlain map and the recent satellite imagery beneath.


The wide band of dark soil across the base of this unit is a feature interpreted as the moat of Fort St. Andrew.

The exact location of the fort was not known archeologically until a Phase I study of the 
effects of the storm damage led by Carolyn Rock (2006) succeeded in locating its remains. During the summers of 2007, 2009, 2011, and 2014, crews from SEAC conducted excavations at the fort to determine its integrity and to recover as much information as possible before any more of this important site is lost to erosion. Intact archeological deposits were encountered over 2 m below the ground surface. In some of excavation units, eighteenth century artifacts like ceramics, gunflints, kaolin pipestems, and wrought iron nails were recovered from what is interpreted as the ditch or moat that surrounded the fort. Weathered cedar planking and iron hoops, possibly for barrels, were also recovered. The British used shell mined from prehistoric Native American shell middens to help construct the rampart and parapet adjacent to the ditch or moat. Archeological excavations have also demonstrated that a shell midden lies beneath what remains of the fort and extends beyond it. Unfortunately, these investigations also suggest that the majority of the fort has already been lost to erosion of the steep back-barrier bluff.

Fort Prince William

The second eighteenth century British fort, Fort Prince William, was constructed on the south end of the island. By the time surveyor John McKinnon made his map of the island in 1802, Fort Prince William was already being overtaken by the sea.

Fort Prince William

Location of Fort Prince William as shown on McKinnon’s 1802 map. Note the dramatic difference between the shape of the island on the overlain map and the recent satellite imagery beneath.


Brickhill Bluff

Like Fort Saint Andrew, the Brickhill Bluff site is located on the northwest back-barrier and was damaged during Tropical Storm Tammy’s 2005 deluge.  In 2012, the rate of shoreline attrition was estimated at 0.59 m per year based on data from three other sites with analogous geography and archeological components along the back-barrier (Wise 2012). That year, SEAC archeologists demonstrated with diagnostic artifacts recovered from buried contexts on the bluff and the ground surface along the beach exposed by erosion, that the site had been in essence continuously occupied from approximately 800 B.C., the Woodland Period, until 1870.

Brickhill bluff on 1802 mckinnon.jpg

Location of “Brick Kiln” on the 1802 McKinnon map. The site became the location of the postbellum African-American Brickhill Bluff settlement. Difference between the overlain historic map and the light colored shoreline depicted on the recent satellite image beneath.

Just north of the area explored in 2012, historic maps depict a community of formerly enslaved African Americans that developed as early as 1863 and persisted until at least 1880s (Bullard 2003).

Brickhill bluff map with eroding areas highlighted SEAC-02141

Red lines mark parts of the Cumberland Island back-barrier shoreline actively eroding in 2012.

The Brickhill Bluff site was originally recorded by SEAC archeologists during a cultural resource inventory survey in 1975 as part of the Cumberland Island National Seashore Master Plan (Ehrenhardt 1976). To evaluate the apparently severe erosion they observed, archeologist established monitoring stations at the north and south ends of the site as delineated by Ehrenhardt. Between 1987 and 1988, about four feet of the bank was lost to erosion. An effort to stabilize the sound-side boarder of the site was conceived based on observations at parts of the island where stable tidal marsh zones were developing through the natural deposition shell rakes. These rakes are essentially tightly compacted walls of shell that form basins that trap sediment while allowing water to filter out. “Once sufficient silt is deposited in these small basins, colonies of grasses being to develop… As the grass colonies expand, additional silts are trapped reducing the force of incoming waves,” (Ehrenhardt and Throne 1991:14).

jackson 2006 erosion scarps

The extent of land loss at Brickhill Bluff is captured by Jackson’s (2006) image of erosion scarps at the site.

An experimental erosion-barrier was constructed comprised of dead trees, an artificial shell rake made up of dead shell in burlap bags and GEOWEB to prevent trampling on the rake and predation of vegetation by horses and feral hogs. Unfortunately, by 1994 the only trace of the erosion-control barrier was a thin scatter of oyster shell.


Artificial shell rake drawing

Schematic of the artificial shell rake built bu NPS at Brickhill Bluff.


The Future?

Climate is a complex system of interrelated variables like sea level, atmospheric and oceanic temperatures, storm frequency and intensity, and seasonality, among others. Research into these dynamics can support the development of predictive models, and inspire new avenues for human adaptation to our changing environment.

The cultural resources of Cumberland Island National Seashore exist in a dynamic environment. The same forces that allow the island to adapt to cyclical changes in the force and direction of wind, waves, and currents threaten the preservation of stationary archeological sites. Punctuated and gradual climate-related events and processes have already impacted and in some cases destroyed archeological sites at the park.

NOAA vulnerable CUIS

The powerful punctuated impacts of severe storms cannot be overstated, but the more subtle, ongoing impact of rising sea levels has been understated particularly in regard to erosion along sandy beaches. Interactive predictive models developed by NOAA show that much of the Cumberland Island back-barrier is vulnerable to inundation by rising sea levels. The most vulnerable areas are the low salt marshes and sandy beaches that, while ecologically important, are not generally where intact archeological sites are located. However, as research by the International Hurricane Center at Florida International University has shown “Sea level rise is an enabler of erosion,” (Leatherman, Zhang, and Douglas 2000).  “[S]ea level rise does not actually cause erosion; rather, increased sea level enables high-energy, short-period storm waves to attack further up the beach and transport sand offshore.” (Leatherman, Zhang, and Douglas 2000). Shocking figures suggest that “long-term shoreline retreat rate average[s] about 150 times that of sea level rise. Thus, a sustained rise of 10 cm (3.9 inches) in sea level could result in 15 m (49.2 feet) of shoreline erosion” (Leatherman, Zhang, and Douglas 2000).

Data suggests that ocean waters are becoming warmer and sea-levels are rising. Whether these changes are human-induced or part of natural atmospheric cycles, they foretell increasingly powerful tropical cyclones and more intense storm surges and tides. “At most of the East Coast tide gages, relative mean sea level has maintained a steady rise over the past century,” (Kraus, Gorman, and Pope 1994:23). Though a number of factors are contributing to this process, increasing atmospheric and oceanic temperatures are considerably influential and intensified by the accumulation of greenhouse gasses including water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Some studies show that since 1975, human activity has been contributing increased amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere while at the same time decreasing the extent and quality of ecosystems like forests and wetlands that remove it. Inundation, caused by rising sea levels, of coastal wetland ecosystems like marshes along the Cumberland Island back-barrier may eliminate an ally in our struggle to balance our impact on climate.

Have you been to Cumberland Island National Seashore?

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Bullard, Mary R. 2003. Cumberland Island: A History. The University of Georgia Press. Athens, Georgia.

Ehrenhard, John. 1976. Cumberland Island National Seashore: Assessment of Archeological and Historical Resources. Southeast Archeological Center. Tallahassee, Florida.

Ehrenhard, John E. and Robert M. Throne. An Experiment in Archeological Site Stabilization: Cumberland Island National Seashore. CRM. 14:2, Pp. 13-16. National Park Service.

Jackson Jr., Chester W. 2006. Historic Back-barrier Shoreline Changes Along Cumberland Island, Georgia1857 to 2002. Department of Geology, University of Georgia. Athens, Georgia.

Kraus, Nicholas C., Laurel T. Gorman, and Joan Pope. 1994. Kings Bay coast and Estuarine Physical Monitoring and Evaluation Program: Coast Studies. Volume 1, Main text and appendix A. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Leatherman, Stephen P, Keqi Zhang, and Bruce C. Douglas. 2000. Sea Level Rise Shown to Drive Coastal Erosion. Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union 81:6 pp. 55-57. Online ISSN:2324-9250. Accessed March 9, 2015. John Wiley & Sons.

Rock, Carolyn. 2006. Archaeological Investigations at the Dungeness Wharf Site and the Fort St. Andrews Site, Cumberland Island  National Seashore, Camden County, Georgia. Manuscript on file at Southeast Archeological Center, Tallahassee, Florida.

Wise, Stephen Andrew. 2012. Archeological Investigations at Brickhill Bluff. National Park Service. Manuscript on file at Southeast Archeological Center, Tallahassee, Florida.



SEAC Accession #2729: North Stafford Survey


CUIS boundary and Jackson inset.jpg

Cumberland Island, designated a National Seashore in 1972, is the largest and southernmost barrier island in Georgia and the only one that has remained largely undeveloped. The inset image of the Georgia coast is adapted from  Jackson 2006.



A trail through the Cumberland Island Wilderness.

Archeologists Robert Hellmann, Timothy Roberts, Eric Bezemek, and Brian Worthington from the Southeast Archeological Center (SEAC), spent the first three weeks of February conducting fieldwork at Cumberland Island National Seashore (CUIS). The project area is located within the boundaries of Cumberland Island’s Wilderness AreaFieldwork was conducted on foot and did not involve the use of power tools or other equipment (wheeled transport) that would violate the spirit of the Wilderness Act. Although motorized transport was necessary to get to and from the survey area and to be on hand to meet safety concerns, it was staged at the Main Road, which is not considered to be part of the Wilderness Area.

Their work expanded on a survey initiated in July 2015 to identify the boundaries of a series of sixteen sites recorded by former SEAC director John Ehrenhard in the mid-1970s. Ehrenhard based the boundaries of the sites especially on the surface expression of shell deposits, and artifacts and shell deposits exposed along the eroding edges of bluffs on the western edge of the island. In fact, the project was motivated in part by the steady if not accelerating rate of erosion notable along the island’s western shore caused in part by our planet’s changing climate and regional sea-level rise.


Eric Bezemek recording a shovel test soil profile.


To better define the sites’ boundaries, evaluate their integrity, gauge the impacts of erosion, and establish a cultural material profile, SEAC archeologists completed a systematic shovel testing survey at each site; the most recent mobilization focused on the four northernmost sites, 9 CAM 13 through 9 CAM 16.


Each shovel test was placed at 20 meter intervals along transects each spaced at 20 meter intervals. Each test was 40 to 50 cm in diameter and excavated at least 100 cm below the ground surface. The soil was screened through ¼ inch mesh hardware cloth to recover any cultural material that may be present. Each test was numbered consecutively but also has a number corresponding to the survey grid. Information regarding each shovel test was entered onto standardized forms describing location, depth, and soil characteristics, and any material that was recovered. In addition, the position of each test and other significant features encountered during the fieldwork were recorded with a Trimble GPS capable of sub-meter accuracy and referenced to the North American Datum 83 (CORS 96) coordinate system (Zone 17).


Eric Bezemek and Tim Roberts shovel testing in the Cumberland Island Wilderness Area.


Shovel testing tools of the trade include pull tapes for establishing a grid, flags for marking tests on a grid, a shovel, a shaker screen with 1/4″ hardware cloth, a tarp for catching screened soil to be replaced in the hole, gloves for screening, field forms and pencils, artifact bags and markers, a trowel for cleaning test profiles, a tape measure or folding rule for recording soil strata depths, a Munsell color chart for describing soil colors, a GPS for digitally recording the location of the test, and a bit of upper body strength, keen eyes, patience, and enthusiasm

Artifacts recovered from each test were issued a Field Specimen number and listed on a Field Specimen Provenience Form. These specimens were collected for analysis and placed in clear plastic ziplock bags and labeled with the park name, date, project accession number, field specimen (FS) number, specific provenience, and name of the investigator(s) printed on the outside of the bag.

This Instagram contains several pictures from SEAC’s recent trip to Cumberland Island and other National Parks in the Southeast.

The cultural materials collected, field forms, photographs, maps, and GPS data are currently being processed in the SEAC laboratory. Based on preliminary observations in the field, the majority of the artifacts recovered during the excavations are Native American ceramics from possibly as early as the Late Archaic period (ca. 3600-1000 B.C.) onward with a few possible examples of contact-period Spanish colonial Native American pottery. A chert core and two flakes were the only lithics identified. The bones of fish, turtle, deer, pig, and cow were among the faunal materials collected. A few historic artifacts were found including brick fragments, tabby mortar, a few iron machine cut nails,  annular ware, stoneware, bottle glass, pane glass, and a single gunflint.


A shovel test profile. Note the dense layer of shell and dark soil between the ground surface and the 75 centimeter mark.

Check out the

Life of Artifact series

Learn a bit about what happens to archeological materials after they’re brought back to the lab.

Stay tuned for more on the North Stafford Survey, including artifact photos, and related archeological investigations on Cumberland Island National Seashore!


Last year SEAC conducted a separate study related to the impacts of climate change on Cumberland Island’s archeological resources at the Fort Saint Andrews site. Watch a short documentary about that project HERE:

Excavations at Cumberland Island: A Fort in Peril


Ehrenhard, John. 1976. Cumberland Island National Seashore: Assessment of Archeological and Historical Resources. National Park Service. Manuscript on file at Southeast Archeological Center. Tallahassee, Florida.

Jackson Jr., Chester W. 2006. Historic Back-barrier Shoreline Changes Along Cumberland Island, Georgia1857 to 2002. Department of Geology, University of Georgia. Athens, Georgia.

Artifact of the Week: Grapeshot

grapeshot lab photo

Unprocessed photograph of grapeshot sample from the 2015 Steeple Building excavations.


Grape_shot in canvas

Grapeshot in canvas.

Grapeshot is a grizzly kind of cannon fodder possibly used as early as the 15th century and extensively as projectiles for naval and land artillery through the 18th and 19th centuries. Grapeshot consists of iron balls clustered together like grapes and wrapped in a canvas bag or stacked between metal discs secured together with a bolt. The balls scatter when fired, like a shotgun blast, inflicting severe damage to massed infantry, ships’ sails and rigging, and whatever else might be on the dangerous end of the barrel.

Grapeshot is not uncommonly found during metal detector surveys of Civil War, Revolutionary War, and War of 1812 battlefields in National Parks throughout the Southeast. But, like so many archeological finds, the secrets of today’s Artifact of the Week are to be found in the context of their discovery rather than their form and perceived function.

CHRI Steeple Building

Church of Our Lord Zaboeth, CHRI.

These specimens were recovered by SEAC archeologists, Meredith Hardy, Rusty Simmons, Michael Seibert, and Eric Bezemek during recent excavations at the Church of Our Lord Zaboeth, also known as the Steeple Building, at Christiansted National Historic Site (CHRI), St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, consecrated on May 27, 1753.

SEAC’s 2015 excavation supported Section 106 compliance for the removal of a 60-70 year old mahogany tree from the area of historic cisterns and a platform built ca. 1916-1925 for the hospital.

The SEAC team was assisted by CHRI staff, Student Conservation Association intern Akeem McIntosh and volunteers from the public.



SEAC archeologists Meredith Hardy and Eric Bezemek with SCA Intern Akeem McIntosh and volunteer excavating at CHRI.

During excavation, it was not clear how the grapeshot found its way into the archeological record. Was is deposited during or prior to the original 1750s construction or somehow during a substantial remodeling of the Church in 1842? Alternatively, was it displaced during the demolition and renovation in 1933 and 1957?

steeple building photo 1-9

Interior photography of the Church of Our Lord Zaboeth during the 1957 remodeling.

As part of the 1957 excavation and restoration, the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) produced as-built drawings that noted the use of grapeshot in the fabric of the building itself!


Detail showing the “grape shot set in lime mortar” from the 1957 HABS drawings.

In as much as the context of the grapeshot’s discovery and the details of the HABS drawings have shed light on the function of the artifacts as part of the structural fabric of the Steeple Building, more questions than answers emerge:

Where did this grapeshot come from? Was it made intentionally for use in construction? Did it come from a Danish military armory? Was it collected from a battlefield, shipwreck, or some other site? What purpose did it serve and was it successful? Is this practice seen with any regularity anywhere else? 

The importance and potential of the objects alone need not necessarily be disregarded.There are a suite of tools available to archeologists for studying objects themselves. Simple measurements of an object’s dimensions can provide clues about its origins and use. For example, the caliber of a bullet might indicate the kind of gun that fired it. Metallography of the grapeshot might allow archaeologists to study the microstructure of the artifacts and determine how they were made. But that would require the partial destruction of one or more specimens.



pXRF sample analysis in progress.

Portable X-Ray Fluorescence (pXRF) is a relatively new, non-destructive technology employed by archeologists for quickly evaluating the elemental composition of an object. SEAC archeologist Michael Seibert successfully used pXRF to distinguish between Mexican and American ordnance found with metal detection at Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park (PAAL). This information was used to reevaluate contemporary maps of the battlefield, map troops movements and positions, and to identify locations of specific landmarks and actions recorded in contemporary accounts of the battle. A pXRF analysis of the grapeshot from the Steeple Building might likewise be useful for testing hypotheses about where and how the grapeshot was made.

Hopefully, this Artifact of the Week sheds some light on the importance of context and multiple lines of evidence in archeology. 


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