Sapelo Island’s rich history makes it a playground for archaeological research–From Native American Inhabitants to its history as a plantation. After the Civil War, newly freed slaves made the Georgia island their home and created the Geechee community. A small group of their descendants still live on the island today.
It was this particular time in history that Dr. Nick Honerkamp and his students with the Jeffrey L. Brown Institute of Archaeology set their sights on. This year’s project focused on identifying the remains of plantation slaves’ living quarters. Honerkamp led similar projects on Ossabaw and St. Simons Islands to locate Gullah-Geechee living quarters on barrier island plantations dating from early 1800’s to the Civil War.
“Little was written about plantation slaves, which leaves archaeology to fill in some of the documentary gaps. I’m especially interested in discovering wood frame cabin locations. Once abandoned or burned, such structures leave behind very little in the way of artifacts or foundation elements, and they are often overlooked by archaeologists because they’re so hard to find,” Honerkamp explained.
“African slaves literally built the Southern plantations, and their lives need to be documented, starting with where and under what conditions they lived.”
This year’s group worked with Geechee residents of Sapelo including the community’s matriarch, Cornelia Bailey, as well as the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve, and the Georgia State Archaeologist to discover two (possibly three) slave cabins.
Dr. Pamela Ashmore, Department Head and Professor of Biological Anthropology, explained that the island is only reachable by ferry, so the field truck had to be brought over by barge. Students aren’t just gaining valuable field experience, they’re learning how to handle the artifacts they discover in the lab too.
“Students are learning how to survey, excavate, and process and analyze archaeological materials in the lab,” Ashmore said.
Honerkamp has led field stations at locations throughout the Chattanooga area and Barrier Islands off the southeastern coast, but he points to his previous work on Sapelo (2010) as “the most gratifying memory” he has. That year, he led students on a project of identifying unmarked Geechee graves in Behavior Cemetery on Sapelo Island.
“We used ground penetrating radar to find the ‘missing’ graves, and this information was used by the local community to avoid disturbing the burials. We worked closely with the local community on this project, and we created a web page with a searchable database that documented all the extant gravestones, including the location of each grave marker, information about the deceased, and a color photograph of each stone,” Honerkamp said.
That particular web page can be found here.