South Carolina is home to some archaeological gems – underground and underwater.
From Native American shell mounds to a Civil War submarine to tools from an ice age more than 16,000 years ago, there’s plenty of history to uncover. There even are a few sites where you can get your hands dirty – sifting through the pieces of the past.
Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site, Charleston
Just off the Ashley River, Charles Towne Landing marks the birthplace of the Carolina colony, located where English settlers landed in 1670. The 664-acre site includes gardens, a natural habitat zoo, a 17th century replica sailing ship, a self-guided history tour – and archaeological excavations.
Archaeology: Excavations at the park have provided clues to previous inhabitants – from Native Americans to European settlers to African slaves. Evidence suggests there was continual human occupation of this land for at least 6,000 years. Excavations began in 1967, and the archaeology work continues today.
What’s been found: Evidence of Native American shell mounds, campsites, villages and a ceremonial center. Household artifacts from the Colonial period have been found, followed by Revolutionary War earthen fortifications, an 18th century plantation house, outbuildings and slave quarters, vineyards, barns and a tavern.
What you can do: Charles Towne Landing has an active volunteer program for anyone interested in archaeology. There are archaeology programs and excavations are open to visitors.
Of note: The findings have helped the park recreate a portion of the 17th century palisade and earthen fortifications. Charles Towne Landing is now planning a large-scale excavation to provide research needed to recreate the palisade wall built by the Charles Towne residents during the early years of the settlement.
Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site, Summerville
Located 15 miles up the Ashley River from Charleston, the busy trading town of Dorchester existed from 1697 until it was abandoned at the beginning of the Revolutionary War.
Archaeology: Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site’s remarkably preserved archaeological remains let visitors gain an understanding of a South Carolina Colonial town.
What’s been found: Some of the town’s original structures or their remains are at the site, including a brick bell tower from St. George’s Anglican Church and a fort made of tabby (a type of concrete made with oyster shells, lime and sand).
What you can do: Visitors can watch as archaeologists continue to uncover the site’s history. Field archaeologists are on-site and available to talk about what they find and what can be learned from the artifacts found there.
Of note: Programs featuring ranger demonstrations and current excavations are planned throughout the year.
Santa Elena, Parris Island
A Spanish settlement on Port Royal Sound near what is now Parris Island in Beaufort County, Santa Elena was the capital of Spanish Florida from 1566 to 1587. Until the mid-20th century, archaeologists and historians assumed the site was French, not Spanish.
Archaeology: The site was first excavated in the 1850s, but because there were no written records from Spain, historians relied on 16th-century French illustrations and believed it was strictly a French site. During World War I, when the Marine Corps began to use Parris Island as a training site, pottery from the 16th century was uncovered. In 1957, National Park Service archaeologists examined the artifacts and determined they were from Spain or made by Spaniards. Later excavations proved that both the French and Spanish had occupied the site. Santa Elena was named a National Historic Landmark in 2001.
What’s there: The new Santa Elena History Center and the inaugural exhibit, “Santa Elena: America’s Untold Story” opened in April 2016. The interpretive museum is located in the old Federal Courthouse at 1501 Bay St. in Beaufort.
Of Note: Santa Elena’s Camp Dig-It is geared toward children ages 6-14 and offers an introduction to the field of archaeology by a professional archaeologist.
The H.L. Hunley, North Charleston
In February 1864, the Confederate H.L. Hunley became the first submarine to sink an enemy warship. The sub then sank into Charleston Harbor with nine crew members. More than 135 years later, in August 2000, underwater archaeologists raised the Hunley and transported it to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston. There it was placed in a large steel tank filled with 55,000 gallons of chilled fresh water to minimize bacteria and corrosion and to protect and stabilize the sub. Since then, scientists have been working to study and preserve the Civil War submarine.
What’s there: Hunley tours are available from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. The guided portion of the tour showing the submarine in its 90,000-gallon conservation tank lasts approximately 20 minutes. Tours are not available on weekdays so scientists can continue their work preserving the Hunley.
Topper archaeological site, Allendale County
The University of South Carolina’s SC Institute of Anthropology and Archaeology began excavating Clovis artifacts along the Savannah River in Allendale County in 1984. It became one of the most well-known Clovis sites in the US. More discoveries at the site showed a pre-Clovis culture, with inhabitants believed to be living there much earlier than the accepted 13,100 years.
What’s been discovered: Small tools such as scrapers and blades made of the local chert from an ice age culture back 16,000 years or more. Older artifacts of a pre-Clovis type buried in sediment stained with charcoal, suggesting man was in South Carolina long before the last ice age.
What’s there: Topper is home to a shelter and viewing deck sitting above the dig site. Teams of graduate students from around the country work at the dig.
Of note: In 2008, PBS spent a week at Topper filming for an hour-long television special “Time Team America.”
What you can see: A permanent exhibit of Topper artifacts is on display at the library at the University of South Carolina Salkehatchie. Items on display include man-made stone tools that were created by flaking and chipping flint. These tools include fluted spear points that the Clovis people used for hunting around 13,100 to 12,900 years ago. Also on display are blades by an earlier occupation that dates 50,000 years or more.