Dr. Nick Honerkamp spends four weeks of his summer turning the dirt of Sapelo Island off the coast of Georgia, where he and his archeology students uncover the history of slaves who worked the plantations.
Gullah/Geechee slave settlements remain archeologically intact on this protected island, offering clues for Honerkamp, director of the Jeffrey L. Brown Institute of Archeology and UC Foundation Professor of Anthropology at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
“I am able to attempt to reconstruct the lives of the people who were responsible for every single success that plantation owner Thomas Spaulding had,” Honerkamp said. “It was all their labor — they built the mansion, they plowed the fields, they cut the trees, they harvested the Sea Island cotton and sugar. The only mention of them other than a census indicating that Spalding owned some slaves is a map. To me, on a personal level, I think the lives of people who have accomplished so much deserve more than a map of some cabins that’s not even accurate,” Honerkamp said.
Dr. David Crass, state archaeologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Historic Preservation Division, agreed, saying this archeological work has been the vehicle to reconnect the Gullah/Geechee population with a part of history that was in danger of being forgotten.
“The Department of Natural Resources depends on Nick’s research to identify and characterize archaeological sites on the island. This is critical to our management objectives, because Sapelo is one of the most important resources DNR manages,” Crass said. “It combines wonderful natural resources with a complex archaeological record. Often we have to find a way to mediate between natural resource management techniques and protection of our archaeological sites; Nick’s research gives us the knowledge base to do that.”
Cultural resource management based on Honerkamp’s work provides the state of Georgia with useful information about sensitive areas of Sapelo Island.
“There are areas that are better left avoided if they are going to construct a new dorm, for instance, for the University of Georgia. Now they can look at our map and see where not to bulldoze,” he said.
Honerkamp hypothesizes that by 1857, the slaves of Sapelo were no longer living in tabby slave cabins, a concrete construction material made from lime, sand and oyster shells. He believes it was cheaper for the slaves to live in wooden frame structures held up by blocks.
“Now imagine what would be left 150 years after 1857. The wood rots away, the blocks are robbed for use, if they were tabby or brick. What I suspected was there would be nails from where those cabins were, so they would mark the footprint of each of these cabins. The ceramics, oyster shells, bones from animals they were eating would not be in the footprint of the house, because they had wooden floors, and these items would not fall through wood floors. A common pattern in the 19th century was that they would throw refuse out the entrances and exits of their cabins.
That was my working hypothesis, and we think we’ve got that,” Honerkamp said.
At the request of Gullah-Geechee residents of the Hog Hammock community on Sapelo, Honerkamp led the UTC field school to conduct research at Behavior Cemetery in summer 2010.
Among the stated goals Honerkamp and UTC student Lindsey Cochran described in the academic paper “Community-Based Mortuary Archaeology
On Sapelo Island, Georgia” was an effort to detect the presence of unmarked graves.
In the introduction of the paper, the authors explain: “An observation by a resident speaks directly to this concern: ‘We can’t swing a shovel without waking someone up.’ It is a disquiet shared by many Hog Hammock residents.”
Based on imaging software, Honerkamp and Cochran reported anomalies which could be tree roots or non burial features, but “there are clearly many that in all likelihood do record individual unmarked burials…much still remains to be discovered in this area.”
The paper has been accepted to the program of the January 2011 conference of the Society for Historical Archeology, one of several collaborative academic papers written by Honerkamp and his students and presented at regional and national conferences.
“I’m interested in the scientific aspects of this research, but what’s tugging at you is the humanities of it, the personal connection,” Honerkamp said.
In summer 2009, Honerkamp’s group found four beads.
“You can’t get much more personal than that — they were worn around ankles,” Honerkamp said. Bone buttons, probably made from mammal long bones, and evidence of firearms were all over the site.
By law, slaves were prohibited from owning firearms, but Honerkamp said nearly every slave cabin site on the coast confirms that plantation owners ignored this law. The UTC field school turned up lead shot and percussion caps, some that had been shot and others that had not been shot, along with whole and partial gunflints.
“What that indicates to me is slave autonomy, because they were self-provisioning with these guns,” Honerkamp said. “And then you also see if you can identify the food remains. A lot of it is wild; it is not all coming from the big house. Most of the slaves under Spaulding, who was a relatively benign slave owner — I stress relatively benign, because he still enslaved human beings and made them work for free—but he allowed slaves to live in their own communities, not necessarily in slave cabin lines. This is the only map that shows a line of cabins that Spaulding had on his property. The other slave settlements are dispersed, way, far away from the main house.”
Additional finds in 2009 included a sickle (probably a rice sickle), knife fragments, ceramics, prehistoric items…and suddenly, word and interest spread around the community.
“For our archeological day, there were 45 residents who came. We had an awning set up, tables with artifacts,” Honerkamp said. “The students were blown away to have that kind of interest by the descendants of these people. That was very gratifying. Sapelo Island Cultural and
Revitalization Society (SICARS) formally requested, and I agreed, to become their consulting archeologist. I was honored. They saw the value in what we were doing and the sensitivity we brought to it.
“I am going to make a case for a permanent exhibit, either at the local library or SICARS or even at the visitor’s bureau on the mainland so that people can see the physical remains, what this archeology is producing. I don’t know if the state can do that, but eventually that can happen. We need something to indicate there was somebody here besides the rich white landowners.”