Digging Savannah

Archaeologists find Revolutionary War and Native American artifacts in downtown sites

One of the most fascinating aspects of archaeology is dealing with the unexpected.

Archaeologists with the Coastal Heritage Society have been digging in Emmet Park and Madison Square. They’re looking for evidence from the Revolutionary War era, but are encountering surprises from other periods of history along the way.

“We’ve found an Indian site, a midden or trash heap,” says Rita Elliott, curator of exhibits and archaeology for the CHS, says. “We’ve found oyster shells, animal bones and pottery.”

The midden, located in Emmet Park, is about 2,000 years old, Elliott says. Local folklore suggests that Yamacraw Bluff once was the site of an Indian settlement and still contains an Indian mound. Elliott says it’s possible.

“The English thought this was a great spot to live and the Indians would have thought so, too,” she says. “It makes sense that there would be an Indian mound on a bluff here.”

But what Elliott and her co-workers are looking now for is evidence from just a few centuries ago. “The Coastal Heritage Society got a grant from the National Park Service based on the work we did in 2005, when we found the Spring Hill Redoubt, Elliott says.

That work was done at the Battlefield Park at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and the Old Louisville Road. During that excavation, several artifacts from the Revolutionary War were found.

“The focus of the grant is to find out if anything is left from the Revolutionary War in Savannah,” Elliott says. “And, if there is, what kind of shape it’s in.”

To begin the search, Elliott obtained maps showing where the Battle of Savannah was fought. “We went to Pennsylvania, New York and Michigan and got lots of maps and archival material,” she says. “We brought the maps back and worked with the city to do GIS (geographic information systems work). We lined up the maps with modern-day Savannah.”

The Battle of Savannah was fought on two main approaches, Elliott says. “The main one was at Spring Hill where the heart of the battle was fought,” she says. “The second approach was at the central redoubt, where the colonists attempted to throw the British off.”

About 12,000 troops took part in the October 1779 battle. The British forces defeated the Americans and their French and Haitian allies, and about 800 were killed or wounded during the fierce fighting.

Some battle sites now lie under buildings. “We wanted to see which ones fall in green space, such as Emmet Park,” Elliott says. “We do archaeology to see what’s there. We’ve looked at all of Emmet Park.”

Radar was used to locate the most promising spots. “We did shovel tests where the radar said some things might be,” Elliott says. “We’re down to about 1800. We’ve gotten back as far as 1812.”

Elliott points out an excavation in Emmet Park. The dirt is marked in such a way that indicates some type of structure was located there. “We think it might be some kind of cellar,” she says.

For now, digging has been finished at Emmet Park and Madison Square. “We’ll take a look at the budget and if we can, we’ll look at other squares,” Elliott says.

“It’s a year-long grant,” she says. “That means a year to do research, field work and do an exhibit. There are just three of us and a volunteer.

“I see this project as a model project,” Elliott says. “Savannah was founded in 1733, but there are very few buildings from that period. If we want to tell the story of colonial Savannah and Revolutionary War Savannah, archaeology is the way to do it.”

There is great potential for cultural tourism because of Savannah’s Revolutionary War history, Elliott says. “We’ve had a huge amount of tourists come by to see what we’re doing,” she says.

“Across the board, they’ve all been uniformly positive about it,” Elliott says. “It’s nice to see that kind of support.”

Archaeologists don’t just look for artifacts, they look at the ground itself. “We’re looking for evidence and clues in the ground,” Elliott says. “Sometimes that is as important as artifacts.”

But still, some artifacts are being found. Elliott’s husband, Daniel, holds out a handful of pottery shards. “They’re from around 1800,” he says. “They’re post Revolutionary War, but could be from about 1812. They also could be from the Civil War.”

Laura Seifert found something, too -- a very modern water pipe. “We have to dig out the modern layer,” she says. “I knew we weren’t deep enough. It takes a lot of work to get down where we need to be.”

Carl Arndt of the Coastal Georgia Archaeology Society is a volunteer who is helping with the dig.

“I like to dig and to find relics of the past,” he says. “I’m retired, so I can more or less work at the same time the archaeologists need me.”

Arndt, too, has found artifacts. “I’ve found a bunch of rusting nails,” he says.

The nails are cut, which means they’re much older than modern types of nails. Arndt also has found some pottery shards, including Indian pottery.

“I’ve found different brass objects,” he says. “I found a heart-shaped pendant and the bottom part of a shoe. But the things we didn’t find are probably as important as what we found.”

At Madison Square, Elliott and her team discovered two musket balls -- one French, the other British -- as well as a shoe buckle, a brass ring and lots of loose brick fragments. The artifacts were found in the northeast corner of Madison Square between the Savannah DeSoto Hilton hotel and E. Shaver, Bookseller.

Elliott believes the site at Madison Square occupies the location of a French and American diversionary attack on British lines, designed to distract attention away from the main attack on the Spring Hill Redoubt. The brick fragments may be remnants of a former military barracks.

The barracks were torn down before the battle to provide cover for British troops defending the city. The artifacts were found in the shadow of a monument to Sgt. William Jasper, who died in the 1779 battle.

The dig is being conducted under the watchful eye of David White, the director of the City of Savannah’s Parks and Trees Department. It’s pretty uncommon to have archaeologists digging in the city’s prized parks and squares, he said.

“That’s why we’ve been so concerned,” White says. “We were kind of taken by surprise. They coordinated with the city manager’s office and it didn’t filter down to us.”

At one point, White nearly shut the dig down. “We’ve very protective of the squares,” he says.

As an enthusiast of history, White is now enjoying watching the dig. “There might have been houses here at one time,” he muses. “When you go back 250 years, there’s no telling what was going on at that time.”

Elliott says White’s protectiveness is good for archaeology, because it protects precious sites. After all, once a site is destroyed, it’s gone for ever.

“If someone lived here, archaeology will tell us,” she says.

So far, no skeletal remains have turned up.

“We haven’t found any body parts. We haven’t found the mass grave at Spring Hill. There’s been a lot of construction over there over the years. Whether it still exists, we don’t know,” Elliott says.

“Over here, it’s less likely to find a body in Emmet Park, but you never know,” she says. “That’s one of the things that makes archaeology interesting.”