Want to play Indiana Jones for a day?
Amateur archaeologists have an opportunity to get their hands dirty during a professional excavation taking place in the courtyard of the Isaiah Davenport House Museum this Saturday, Jan. 18.
Before anyone starts cracking a bullwhip, however, it should be known that participants are more likely to find small chips of china or a rusted nail than massive sparkling gems or a human skeleton. On the bright side, there won't be any angry natives spewing poisonous darts.
"This isn't the movies, this is real life," admonishes museum director Jamie Credle. "The bits and pieces are an avenue to understand more about everyone who lived here."
That includes the home's builder and first resident, Isaiah Davenport, the "upwardly mobile artisan" who built the Federal-style brick home on Columbia Square in the 1820s and raised ten children there.
Remarkable in its carpentry details and breathtaking spiral staircase, the residence sparked the historic preservation movement in Savannah in the 1950s. Saving the house from demolition was the first act of the Historic Savannah Foundation, and it remains the sole museum property of HSF, with a continuing goal of restoring the house from top to bottom.
But by "everyone who lived here," Credle also means Davenport's African American slaves, who may not have contributed much to the official historical record but ostensibly left behind many clues of their day-to-day lives in the home's basement level and adjoining courtyard garden.
The dig is also expected to turn up details regarding the lives of the rooming house dwellers that occupied the stately home through the 1930s.
"This was a tenement far longer that it was a home for the Davenports," reminds Credle. "Everything can add to our inventory of information."
Led by LAMAR Institute principal investigator and field director Rita Elliott and her husband, Dan Elliott, the excavation will be the most comprehensive in the history of the property.
A dig conducted in the early 1970s revealed promising features that indicated signs of a carriage house and a stone privy, though the research was never completed. Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps from 1898 and 1916 point to more possible outdoor structures, and other aspects suggest a kitchen in the basement and hidden ironworks under the plaster staircase.
There is perhaps no greater local archaeological authority at the moment than Ms. Elliott, who has conducted dozens of projects throughout the state, among them Jekyll Island's tabby Horton House and the Coastal Heritage Society's railroad complex off MLK Blvd., including the excavation that provided the definitive archaeological history of the 1779 Battle of Savannah.
She most recently oversaw the excavation of a parcel of land near the I-95/204 interchange that uncovered over 33,000 artifacts from antebellum slave quarters and is renowned for surfacing details about African Americans, women and other under-represented individuals in the historical record.
"It's not what you find, but what you find out," she often quotes, invoking noted anthropologist David Hurst Thomas.
At the Davenport House, the couple has developed a research design and field plan for Saturday's dig in accordance to the guidelines stated by the U.S. Dept. of Interior. Among the questions framing the project are inquiries into former residents' level of health (reflected in any found medicine bottles and soil samples) and how artifacts such as ceramics and tableware inform what is known about the economic and social structures for women, children and slaves of the time.
In order to map where to dig, Daniel recently conducted a series of surveys using Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) analysis that provided the optimum placement for small sample "test units." By slowing pushing a carriage holding the machinery over the grounds, he yielded valuable data hidden beneath the bricks and flooring.
The Elliotts will reveal the results of this "x-ray" technology at a workshop on Wednesday, Jan. 15, along with an introduction to archaeology general practices and techniques. (It is not required to attend the workshop to participate in Saturday's dig, though Credle strongly recommends signing up in advance for a time slot.)
Archaeology is a methodical and exacting science that carefully exhumes one layer at a time, so overzealous adventurers are encouraged to leave their picks and shovels at home. But be consoled that in an age where it seems everything has already been discovered, there are still nearby opportunities to unearth history and bring it to light.
"Think of all the places in Savannah that have yet to have this kind of work done," muses Credle.
"We're all excited to find out in real terms, not just in generalities, what happened here."