Unlocking the secrets of a Southern canal

AASU students learn archaeology by doing it

In archaeology, half a bowl is better than no bowl at all.

Seven Armstrong Atlantic State University students participated in an archaeology class this past semester. They did excavation at a lock tender’s house at the Savannah-Ogeechee Canal, and Kelly Gore is credited with finding the most interesting artifact.

“Kelly made the star find -- half of a bowl that was made in China,” says Dr. Mark Newell, an archaeologist and instructor of the class. “It’s a very high-status piece of ware. Kelly opened up a layer and found the complete base. It’s very difficult to date. My guess would be the late 18th century.”

Gore enjoyed the class so much, she’s considering a career in archaeology. Students not only recovered artifacts, they’re responsible for cleaning and cataloguing them. “We found a lot of ceramics, a lot of glass pieces, all which were broken, unfortunately,” Gore says.

Ben Hill took the class as part of a fulfillment for a master’s degree in history. “After one semester, Dr. Newell gave us his blessing to work at other digs,” he says.

“Because it’s government property, they do archaeological surveys,” Newell says. “It’s such a big tract that it covers a lot of archaeological sites. They need help in the fieldwork. I recommended some students last year. They did such a good job we were approached about it again this year.”

Corrie Hand had already worked on an archaeological dig at an Ocmulgee River Indian site. “I loved it so much I decided to do it again,” she says. “That excavation lasted only a week and dealt primarily with Native American artifacts. With this being a house, the artifacts that were recovered were more personal.”

Not everyone in the class enjoyed the experience. “I’d never done anything like this before and I thought I was interested,” Megan Leggett says. “I liked the class, but I didn’t love it. It was hot outside, but I guess I should have thought about that before I took the course.”

But Leggett has nothing but good things to say about Newell as an instructor. She says she never would have believed she could learn to tell the difference between several types of pottery just by looking at shards without his help.

Newell came to Savannah in 1968 from England and lived on State Street. Today, he’s based in North Augusta, S.C., and commutes once a week to teach the class.

Originally from England, Newell earned an undergraduate degree in journalism before turning to archaeology. “I still consider myself a journalist,” he says.

Archaeology is journalism, Newell says. “We’re digging for information and reporting it,” he says.

In 1993, Newell was working at the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology at the University of South Carolina. “I was doing research for a degree from St. Andrew’s in England,” he says. “I was working on Southern canals.”

A man named Bill Sternwell got in touch with Newell. “He was looking for someone to advise him,” Newell says. “He was interested in the Savannah-Ogeechee Canal, which had pretty much gone out of business in the 1870s.

“Bill personally had a vision,” Newell says. “He could see it could be turned into something valuable to the area. It ran along a 16-mile route between Savannah to the Ogeechee River. It was built during the heyday of canals during the 19th century.”

The canal was chartered in 1824 and construction was completed in December 1830. Problems with erosion and decaying of the docks resulted in the company declaring bankruptcy in 1836.

A new company was formed, and widened and improved existing structures within the canal. In the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s, the canal company prospered.

The canal begins with a tidal lock at the Savannah River, continues through four lift locks and ends at another tidal lock on the Ogeechee River. The canal was used to transport cotton, rice, bricks, guano, naval stores, peaches and other goods.

Heavy rains in 1876 turned the canal into a public health nuisance. More than 1,000 people died that year from the yellow fever, which is caused by mosquito bites.

The canal ceased to operate in the 1890s. Wharves, warehouses and canal frontage property were purchased by the Central of Georgia Railway.

Three years ago, Newell began the lengthy process required to do an archaeological dig at a National Register site. “We started doing an archaeological survey of Lock 5 and Lock 3 at Pooler,” he says. “You can’t begin to know what to do until you know what you’re working with.”

Newell realized that the canal is 15 minutes from the AASU campus. “To me, it would be the waste of a great opportunity to teach if I didn’t make this available to the university, so I proposed a class,” he says. “They immediately embraced the idea.”

Field Techniques in Historical Archaeology was first presented last year to 19 students, who worked at the site with Newell and the Georgia Archaeological Institute. “The class is an introduction to archaeology with hands-on experience right there at Lock 5,” Newell says. “They found the site of the original lock tender’s house.”

Just finding the site was an accomplishment. Union forces burned the house in 1865. “The university asked me to teach the class again and this year it’s a smaller class,” Newell says. “We have been excavating part of the lock tender’s house.”

In the process, the students have learned just what archaeology is really like, which is much more than studying a book. “They have to get their hands dirty,” Newell says. “It’s a great opportunity and a wonderful site to do this.

“When we excavated, we found 4 feet of the existing foundation,” he says. “It was crammed full of material that ranged in date from the early 19th to the mid 19th century,” Newell says. “It’s a complete spectrum of the canal when it was at its busiest time.”

Conservation of the artifacts requires quite a bit of work. “Each one has to be cleaned several times, photographed, drawn, chemically treated and then cataloged into the canal museum’s collections,” Newell says.

The dig was unique in many ways. “There are few Southern canals and very little excavation of them,” Newell says. “In a way, it’s a very unusual opportunity to get information that was never available before.”

The site truly has the potential to be a major attraction, Newell says. “You’ve got access, all the particulars needed for developing a major historic site,” he says. “There are a huge number of canal buffs across the country who would come here to see the canal.”

There were some surprises that were discovered during the excavation. “The first unusual thing about this site is that we found a lot of high-status material,” Newell says. “Porcelain from Europe, china, lead crystal, decorative glass. It’s an anomaly.”

Dr. Mark Finley of AASU’s history department searched the archives for clues. “We found out that the lock keeper had the same name as the president of the canal,” Newell says. “Maybe this was a son or other relative of the president. Maybe the lock tender was relatively wealthy because his father was the president of the canal. This is just a theory, but this lock was located at the entrance to the canal, so it was always grander than the rest of the canal.”

The artifacts that were discovered by the students will be placed at the Savannah Ogeechee Canal Museum and Nature Center, which is near Lock 5. For now, the course is the only opportunity AASU students have to study archaeology.

“There’s a lot of opportunity in archaeology here,” Newell says. “But historians and archaeologists don’t seem to interact a great deal. It doesn’t make sense because each feeds on the other. Archaeologists uncover history, and history enables us to interpret what we find.”