For about three hours last week, it is back to the future on Ossabaw Island.

In one corner, there is the bearded, studious and understated archaeologist Dan Elliott, digging deep into the earth, patiently, methodically, systematically mining for clues to the days when African-American slaves inhabited this barrier island’s two remaining tabby houses that the Ossabaw Foundation plans to restore.

With a team of two -- Mark Frissell and David Stroud -- Elliott spends his day probing and scraping, dumping and shaking, looking for clues, hunting for artifacts, trying to piece together earlier decades, trying to find a window of explanation into the lives of 18th and 19th century Southern slaves.

If not long-suffering, Elliott, president of the well-respected and nonprofit Lamar Institute, is realistic. He is resigned. If at the end of the day, he finds a belt buckle, a shard of pottery, a tobacco pipe, he is happy.

That he already found a small lice comb of carved bone, a 19th-century shoe buckle and a doll-sized porcelain plate is icing on the cake, if only because it dispels the myth that children of slaves did not play with toys.

But while Elliott and team continue its three-week-long archeological dig with tools such as a pad of graph paper and a stack of brown paper lunch bags to deposit their findings, another group of people motoring over to the island for a few hours arrive with another set of tools, another language, this one involving software, telecommunications and digital manipulation.

This group is led by Chris Miller, affable, energetic, garrulous and the ultimate techie. Miller, who talks in complete sentences and complete paragraphs, was shepherding two men from Epproach Communications (“’s in the air!”), one of a number of high-tech companies that Miller, a fan of “knowledge-based businesses,” is working long and hard to bring to Savannah.

As a board member of the Ossabaw Foundation, Miller’s mission is to improve the “data access” capability of the island, to take Ossabaw from the world of road kill to one of cyberspace.

“There’s no way we could get researchers to go anywhere for more than a day if they can’t pick up access,” he says.

Miller, 46, knows something about the subject. In 1995, while surfing the net at an Internet bar in Atlanta, he ran across the early Internet provider Mindspring, which was eventually bought out by Earthlink. He liked the sound of the company.

“They had integrity,” he says. “They sounded like people who wanted to do the right thing. In their mission statement they said they wanted to change the way the world did business. They wanted to offer exceptional service to customers, to be an exceptional place for employees to work and to offer exceptional returns for shareholders. They turned the usual paradigm on its head.”

So for the first time in his life, Miller, a native of Wilmington, Del., who once ran a concert hall on the West coast and a YMCA camp, asked for a job. He got it.

As a technical support representative, he became one of 15 people to work for the company. Five years later, when he left, he was a vice president in charge of customer service and sales, managing 3,000 people.

That’s when he moved with his boat to Savannah -- “to watch the marsh grow.” But the peripatetic Miller wasn’t built to sit still. He looked around, started talking to people and before long formed his own nonprofit company.

As head of The Creative Coast, he’s doing his best to convince the city’s movers and shakers that tourism is not the only way for the city to go, that with 30,000 miles of buried fiber optic cable, thousands of tech-friendly students graduating every year and a beautiful town to boot, Savannah needs to change direction.

“I like ice cream, too,” he says, referring to the benefits of tourists, “but not for every meal.”

Articulate, charming, comfortable in any milieu and able to practice collaboration, he’s raising questions and making people think. But to the handful of Department of Natural Resources (DNR) employees who oversee Ossabaw and live on the island, he’s a godsend.

They like living off the grid, mind you, but they are hungry for a better phone system. They want to be able to communicate faster, cheaper and more reliably.

They are motivated to cooperate. So when Epproach CEO Roel Harsta started talking about needing a tall structure for their transmitter, the DNR’s Jim Simmons directed the crew to a pile of five 12-foot pieces of discarded tower that had been sitting at the edge of the woods forever.

Still, the irony of watching Bob Ketterhagen, Epproach’s director of technology, hold up his handheld GPS to try to get a bead on a satellite, while archaeologist Elliott and friends -- under the watchful eye of seven or eight meandering burrows and several wild boar -- reach for a shovel, a masonry trowel, a dust bin, a toothbrush and a shake screen is not lost on Jim Bitler, the on-island coordinator for the Ossabaw Island Foundation.

“They track satellites,” said Bitler, who is nothing if not a quick read. “We track pigs.”

None of that fazes Miller. He’s heard the arguments of the Luddite -- and he’s sticking with his vision. His hair pulled back in a ponytail, his feet in Chaco sandals and socks on a chilly February morning, he is only looking forward.

“POTS stands for plain old technology stuff,” he said, not afraid to bring the level of conversation down a peg or two. “PANS stands for pretty advanced new stuff. We’re looking for PANS.”

It’s when he moves into talk of broadband, redundant path main track, acoustic couplers and back hauling diverse paths that Bitler, who can weave his own stories around indigo production, the history of the island and how to make a wall out of tabby, rolls his eyes and whispers, “Gee, I wish I had studied Latin. Know what I mean?”

I do, but that didn’t mean we’re not trying to understand. It just takes the rest of us a little longer. w


Jane Fishman writes a weekly column for ConnectSavannah. She can be reached at

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