With Diana back up and running 100% since the back surgery in February, we’ve been making an effort to get out of the house and enjoy the outdoors. We’ve gone on long hikes, participated in a couple of archaeological digs, rock-climbed on an interesting geological formation, and plan to purchase a canoe for some Lowcountry outings this fall.
As I mentioned in the last update, we spent a few days digging at the 1700’s ruins of the St. Paul’s Parish Church out at Dixie Plantation with the CoC Archaeology field school back in June. I hope to publish some pics and a more detailed post about that real soon. The site is the subject of at least one dissertation, so I want to make sure we won’t be stepping on anyone’s toes before I post anything in detail.
After having such a great time with the field school dig down here, we began our own little dig on the ruins of an old plantation home on my parents’ property in NE Aiken County during our weeklong summer semester break. Located in a grassed park less than 50′ from my parents’ home, the ruins of the old house are barely visible on the surface, save a few bricks and bits of melted glass poking through on the slightly elevated 25′x40′ mound. There were additional structures on the property, including a probable barn site that produced a myriad of rusty horse shoes, tackle and tools until my father built a greenhouse over it in the early 90’s.
Since my childhood, the mound in the park has always been the most obvious and prolific producer of interesting relics. One of the most exiting is this tinted glass ink well with J&IEM and the date Oct. 31 1865 imprinted on it:
My sister and I discovered it intact in the summer of 1992, poking out of the soil in a flat area between the mound and a very old oak. I’ve since found that it is called the “Turtle” style by most ink bottle collectors, and was made by John Moore in Warren Maine. In his 1865 price catalog, Moore called them “Monitors” after the famous Civil War Naval Ship. These wells are fairly rare today, and one has to wonder how it travelled to Aiken all those years ago. We’ll probably never know that story, but from this excellently preserved piece of molded glass we can assume that someone on the plantation knew how to write.
I’ve been able to tentatively date the long-gone structure to around 1850, based on the type of nails, brick and other artifacts we have found on the site. The latest artifacts date to the early 1930’s, so we probably have a rough range of about 80 years of occupation as a plantation. The site could have been occupied earlier and later, but there isn’t any evidence yet to prove this.
The plantation was located less than 1/2 mile upriver from the small town of Plunkett. Located on the upper South Edisto River basin, Plunkett had a post office and appeared on maps for over 25 years between 1870 and 1895, but ceased to exist sometime between 1895 and 1905. In 1933, we know my parent’s property and a large portion of Plunkett became part of the WW Long 4-H camp tract and the agricultural plantations were replanted with loblolly pines in evenly-spaced rows. Today these trees tower 60’ over the old fields, making it hard to picture the area as farmland. At some point before or after the 4-H club acquired the property, we suspect the home burned. The tract my parents now own, the plantation home site, remained part of the 4-H camp until the construction of Interstate 20 bisected it from the camp and Lake Long the early 1970’s. Shortly after, the newly orphaned land north of I-20 owned by the camp was divided and sold as individual 10-12 acre residential lots. I’ve had some difficulty researching the earliest property records because of the location itself. The plantation was originally located in Edgefield County until the 1871, when it was absorbed into the newly-created Aiken County. Surprisingly, my ancestors, the Vollmers, were one of the first families to settle in the upper S. Edisto Basin, directly neighboring the the Plunketts. Although it is not likely, it’s actually possible that my parents reside on the same plot of land they did. Unfortunately, we may never know the names of the original plantation owner because many Edgefield County property records were lost in the shuffle long ago. Next visit will involve a trip to the Aiken County library (it was closed for the holiday this time), when I hope to finally get a bead on who owned the place before the 4-H camp.
Over three days of our break in early July, Di and I performed a series of carefully chosen test pits and opened a couple of units at the site. We used an 18”x24” sifter with ¼” mesh we built ourselves for under $20. There are several companies that sell them for $50-$70 apiece, but we decided to go the DIY route and were very pleased with the results. Di did a majority of the sifting and thinks the size is perfect for her.
The test pits produced a few pieces of pottery and ceramics, in addition to the very common chunks of melted glass, square wrought nails, and brick fragments. On the surface near one of the tests, I discovered a large piece of alkaline glazed stoneware, likely from a large storage jar commonly produced in the Aiken and Edgefield area during the 19th century. Intact examples of this same style of pottery from Edgefield are very popular collectibles these days, fetching thousands of dollars apiece. Sadly, I was unable to locate any more of it. Either way, it was a promising find.
We located one 3’x3’ unit near the edge of the mound, hoping to uncover remnants of a foundation underneath. Unfortunately, this unit did not reveal a foundation, but it did allow us to nicely identify the different levels of debris on the site and confirmed our suspicions of a massive fire. Below a 2-3″ layer of hardened sandy topsoil, we immediately hit a layer of whole bricks and burned brick rubble, grout, nails, and a few fragments of thin flat glass, probably from a window. Immediately below the rubble was a definite layer of blackened earth, peppered with pieces of charcoal. We continued to dig an additional 4-6” below the fire layer, but no additional artifacts were located below the rubble. There was a definite color change about 2-3” below the charcoal, indicating we had reached the occupational period subsoil.
On the final day, I opened another 3×3 unit in a 10×10 depression adjacent to the mound. We suspect this was a trash pit or possibly a cellar that was filled with debris after the structure was destroyed. As is often the case in archaeology, you seem to find the best stuff when you’re running out of time. The shallow pit unit immediately produced a tantalizing amount of promising artifacts, including glass medicine bottles, unusually large square nails, and shovel after shovel of ceramic and pottery sherds. As the day ended, we covered the floor of the unit with a layer of plastic to mark our progress and filled it back in. I can’t wait to get back into that one when we return this fall.
Despite the short duration, our first three days of digging on this site provided us with hundreds of artifacts to clean and catalogue. Next time, we plan to expand both units we opened and perform a few more tests outside the mound to fill in some additional pieces of our puzzle. Even if we never know who lived there, we will learn more about how they lived and get a clearer glimpse of what life was like on this post-antebellum plantation in the midlands of SC.