SEAC: Before Fort Pulaski
The history and prehistory of the area of Fort Pulaski National Monument are a colorful mosaic of different cultures and times. The time before the construction of the fort goes back many thousands of years, and the potential for related archeological sites and materials is immense. "Before Fort Pulaski" is divided into two sections: prehistoric-related work and historic-related work. The former category is sparse due to a lack of archeological testing throughout the entire monument, and the latter is not much better, although there are historical records that can be used to gather some related information.
Archeological Research in the Area of Fort Pulaski
While the amount of information regarding the prehistory of Fort Pulaski National Monument is sparse, there has been a great deal of important research done in nearby areas. The Georgia and South Carolina coasts were home to a large number of inhabitants throughout this area's prehistory. While there were few sites related to the earliest inhabitants of the southeast, the Paleoindians, there was a steady increase of populations through time up until European contact.
Societies during the Late Archaic (3,000 to 1,000 B.C.) began leaving behind mounds of shell, or shell middens, which contained the remnants of their everyday lives. The production of these middens continued throughout the Woodland and Mississippian Periods, during which time they increased in size and took on increasing ceremonial and political importance. Midden/mound sites in the Savannah area included Irene, Bilbo, Deptford, Refuge, Oemler, Walthour, and Meldrim (Click here for a Map of Sites in the Savannah Area - 62 KB). The Oemler, Walthour, and Meldrim sites were actually located on Wilmington Island, an island directly south of McQueens Island, a part of Fort Pulaski National Monument.
A general chronology for archeological materials at the mouth of the Savannah River going from the Late Archaic to the Mississippian Period was based on the excavations of many of the sites mentioned above. Early sites such as Bilbo and Refuge provided good information concerning the initial phases of pottery production along the Georgia coast, especially in this particular area. Following the Bilbo and Refuge phases, ceramics were classified as Deptford. This Woodland Period pottery was eventually replaced by pottery types seen at the three Wilmington Island sites mentioned above. The pottery from the Oemler, Walthour, and Meldrim sites were collectively known as the Wilmington Complex, and represented a Mississippian Period intrusion into the Savannah area. Whether this was an intrusion of actual Mississippian peoples or of Mississippian iconography and technology is still under debate.
The absence of prehistoric related materials within the boundaries of Fort Pulaski National Monument is still somewhat of a mystery. With large sites present on nearby islands such as Wilmington, the reasons for the lack of similar occupations on Cockspur and McQueens Islands remain unclear. The little amount of work that has been done relating to prehistoric archeology within the monument is mentioned below, with recommendations for locating similar sites also being provided.
1999 Investigations Conducted by Tidewater Atlantic Research
No prehistoric related materials have been found on the grounds of Fort Pulaski National Monument. However, there were 2 prehistoric ceramic sherds found in shovel tests conducted along the right-of-way for U.S. Highway 80, which runs through the monument on McQueens Island. This land, while not a part of the actual monument, does fall within the area encompassed by Fort Pulaski National Monument. The survey, conducted by Tidewater Atlantic Research, Inc. for the Georgia Department of Transportation, located the 2 sherds in 2 separate shovel tests. There was a mixture of modern material with the soil in which the pottery was found, so the pottery may have been brought in from elsewhere. Further shovel tests around the 2 yielding the pottery did not produce any artifacts other than modern trash. The sherd on the left in the picture above is known as Deptford Check-stamped, and the one on the right is known as Refuge Punctated. Deptford pottery dates to the Woodland Period, and is generally placed somewhere between 500 B.C. and A.D. 700 on the Atlantic Coast. Refuge pottery comes before Deptford, and is dated between 1100 B.C. and 500 B.C. (Late Archaic to Early Woodland).
Shell Mound Investigations on McQueens Island
Previous prehistoric-related archeological investigations conducted in the vicinity of Fort Pulaski National Monument have identified prehistoric sites dating from the Late Archaic period to European contact. For example, Archaic shell middens were identified on Tybee, Little Tybee, and Wilmington Islands, all of which are adjacent to McQueens Island. It is possible that Archaic sites exist on Cockspur and McQueens Islands.*
Investigations of 3 shell mounds located on the northern edge of McQueens Island were undertaken during the Southeast Archeological Center's 1999 field season. Based on similar sites seen on nearby islands, it was thought that they could possibly be Archaic or Woodland Period shell middens. Documents were found before the testing that also brought up the possibility that these were actually dredge spoil piles created when the Corps of Engineers dredged the South Channel. The archeologists excavated one shovel test in each shell mound, and screened the materials excavated. No artifacts were located in any of the test pits leading the researchers to the conclusion that these were, in fact, dredge spoil piles.
Procedures for Future Research
Surveys conducted by boat and/or by helicopter to locate Archaic shell middens that are washing from creek beds and other cuts through the salt marsh would be a logical first step toward identifying these kinds of sites. Once identified, further investigations including determination of site limits, cultural affiliation, and condition would be required. Shell midden sites typically provide an excellent source of data regarding prehistoric subsistence patterns, paleonutrition and health, seasonality or permanence of habitation, and paleoenvironment. The wet, anaerobic environment of the marshlands also provides excellent artifact preservation conditions. Items such as bone and shell tools, textiles, food remains and other items that are not normally preserved at dry land sites are often recovered in excellent condition from wet archeological sites.*
A second logical step in surveying the islands would consist of a systematic subsurface survey to locate and possibly identify buried prehistoric sites. This phase of investigation should take into consideration the potential for prehistoric sites below the historic fill areas.*
Archeology of Savannah and the Surrounding Area
The area around Savannah, Georgia, is rich both in prehistoric and historic sites. Following initial contact with Europeans in the 1500s, the number of Indians living in the area declined, due both to the spread of disease and conflict with the newly arrived explorers. The Spanish initially explored the areas of coastal Georgia and Florida, and with this established the first permanent colony in the Americas at Saint Augustine, Florida. They established missions as far north as coastal South Carolina, but by 1660, were pushed southward to below the Savannah River. The increasing number of English colonists arriving during the 17th century eventually forced the Spanish out of Georgia, and by 1717 most of the Native American groups had been pushed west to the present-day location of the Georgia/Alabama border. However, some Lower Creek tribes still remained along the coastal area of Georgia.
General James Edward Oglethorpe established the town of Savannah in 1733, approximately one year after Georgia was designated an independent trustee colony under the British Crown. Early relations with the Creek inhabitants in the nearby coastal areas were amicable, mainly due to Oglethorpe's efforts. However, the end of his term as Governor in 1752 marked a change in English policy, and colonists began expanding their territory into lands that previously belonged to the Creek.
This early history along coastal Georgia created numerous archeological sites both in and around Savannah. For example, archeologists investigated the New Ebenezer town site in Effingham County (located northwest of Chatham County) in an effort to learn more about early European colonists. Lutheran refugees from Germany founded this particular town in 1736, but by 1800 it was abandoned. Archeological work conducted here in the late-1980s and early-1990s helped to paint a more complete picture of colonial life along the Savannah River. Other sites such as Fort Argyle located in Bryan County, helped provide researchers with a better perspective of pre-Revolutionary War military life in Georgia. This fort, while only occupied for approximately 34 years, still provided protection to newly arrived settlers southwest of the Savannah area.
Within Savannah, excavations at sites such as the Lebanon Plantation Site have provided archeologists with clues as to what life was like in post-1750s Savannah. The site of Vernonburg, a village site dated between 1742 and 1800, was excavated in the 1980s and 1990s by members of the LAMAR Institute of Georgia. The researchers showed how the town evolved as it changed from a place initially founded by Swiss and German indentured servants to an "Anglo-elite riverside village". Investigations at Mulberry Grove Plantation, the location where Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793, helped archeologists better understand the beginnings of the industrial era in the post-colonial south. Excavations at other Savannah sites such as the Juliette Low Federal Building, the Oglethorpe Median, and two recent projects near the Spring Hill Redoubt yielded few materials related to the colonial period, with most of the work uncovering materials from the 19th century. Despite the listing of sites above and Savannah's rich colonial heritage, there is a relatively sparse amount of archeological data related to colonial era and before sites in and around Savannah. This situation is mirrored in the area of Fort Pulaski National Monument.
Archeology of Cockspur Island
The presence of historic sites predating the construction of Fort Pulaski (pre-1829) is well-documented in records of the area, but the archeological evidence has not been so forthcoming. While numerous maps, letters, and official records regarding Cockspur Island sites such as Fort George, William Lyford's pilot house, and Fort Greene, and the quarantine station, or lazaretto, on Tybee Island have been studied, specific archeological features and artifacts associated with each have yet to be identified. In 1958, Park Superintendent Ralston B. Lattimore and National Park Service archeologist John Griffin conducted a surface survey of the supposed area of Forts George and Greene. These investigations showed that it would be necessary to conduct subsurface testing in the area to effectively determine their location. The subsurface investigations did not occur until the summer of 1999 when Southeast Archeological Center archeologists once again visited this part of Cockspur Island.
1999 archeological investigations in their assumed vicinity failed to yield any positive proof of their location. During this field season, 80 shovel tests were dug in the area supposedly associated with Forts George and Greene and the Lyford pilot house. A linear depression was noted, which could possibly be the channel seen to the left of the fort in the above picture. In addition, one heavily encrusted metal artifact was located, but it was not able to be identified. An arrangement of rectangular vegetation was also noted in this area, but its cause is still undetermined.
It is recommended that a systematic subsurface archeological survey be conducted to pinpoint their exact locations and conditions. The testing should be concentrated in the 20-acre area on the southeastern portion of Cockspur Island.*
Future research in this area should also utilize Ground Penetrating Radar, or GPR, to help map subsurface features. This instrument provides the researcher with a good view of underlying changes in soil without actually digging (See picture at left for an example of GPR output). It works by sending a series of ultra high frequency radio waves into the ground and then measuring the amount of time it takes for these waves to be reflected back to the receiving unit. Higher frequencies are used to test shallower areas, so they are especially useful in archeological investigations. These higher frequencies, generally in the range of 300 to 1,000 Megahertz, also help to provide the user with a higher resolution image. Lower frequencies (25 to 200 Megahertz) are used for deeper penetration, although the images they produce are of much lower quality. The use of Ground Penetrating Radar is an important means of determining the nature of underlying features without the destructive action of digging. For more information on the use of GPR in archeological contexts, click here.
Early military sites have the potential to yield significant information regarding the locations, extent and composition of fortifications, as well as early weapon technology. Recovery of information relating to the early fortifications of the Savannah River harbor would broaden the scope of interpretation available for Fort Pulaski National Monument.*
The area of the lazaretto on the western side of Tybee Island could also hold clues as to what life was like in the second half of the 18th century. While not on National Park Service property, the potential for doing research is there. The only drawback may be that the site was destroyed by the construction and widening of US Highway 80 and subsequent private development in the area.
The sites mentioned above are the ones with the highest probability of yielding any archeological information. Other sites, such as that of Reverend John Wesley's two week occupation, would be more difficult to locate due to a short duration of stay and/or a lack of understanding about the occupation. Priority should be given to finding the locations of the 18th century forts, Lyford's pilot house, and the lazaretto because these sites have the potential of providing the most information about life in the 1700s.
*Paragraph excerpted from Lou Groh's 2000 report, Fort Pulaski National Monument: Archeological Overview and Assessment, from "Chapter 7: Recommendations for Future Archeological Research", pages 96-97. Published by the Southeast Archeological Center of the National Park Service, Tallahassee, Florida.