While Savannah wears its history on its sleeve, there’s still a considerable amount of the city’s past that remains buried — not in cemeteries, per se — but all across the area.
At the Grove’s Creek site, on Skidaway Island, UGA professor Erv Garrison has spent the last 17 years helping to uncover the remains of a pre–European contact Native American village belonging to the Guale people (pronounced “Wally”).
Garrison will give a lecture on Tues., April 6 at 6:30 p.m. at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church discussing recently unearthed discoveries that have helped change the understanding of how indigenous peoples lived in the region. His appearance at SCAD is part of the annual lecture series presented by the Architectural History Department.
“There are all kinds of way that individuals perceive Savannah, that quintessential antebellum image of the community,” says Jeff Eley, Chair of SCAD’s Architectural History Department, “but the history of architecture and the history of building in this community goes much earlier.”
Of particular interest was the discovery that the Guale maintained year-round residence on Skidaway, including adjacent summer and winter dwellings, as well as agricultural sites. It was previously thought that they were more seasonal residents, like Late Pre–Historic snowbirds.
Although there are other sites in the area dating from around the same historical period, including a well–known site on St. Catherine’s Island, Garrison and his team of students and volunteers have been the most successful at uncovering two Guale residences.
“We’ve got two that basically burned and fell down, but you can sort of see how these things went together,” says Garrison.
Although excavation is currently on hold, Garrison is trying to secure grant funding to reconstruct a facsimile of the residences so visitors will be able to get a better understanding of native culture.
The Grove Creek site was first excavated back in the mid–1980s by then–AASU professor Dr. Larry Babbitt, who handed it off to Garrison in 1993.
“Little did I know what I was getting into,” he says with a chuckle. “If you asked me in 1993 what was going on at Grove’s Creek, I probably would have looked at you like an owl.”
Although early America wasn’t his area of expertise (Garrison has spent more time on digs in Europe), he has grown fond of Grove Creek in the subsequent 17 years, particularly the pace of the work — even archaeology around Savannah moves a little more slowly.
“In today’s archaeology, most digs are done almost exclusively in relation to some sort of land clearance or road construction or the building of a mall,” Garrison explains. “They always have time pressure and very few excavations in today’s world are exempt from that.”
Because the Grove Creek site is on university property, it isn’t threatened by development. Research has continued undisturbed for more than two decades. That span of time has been significant because some of the most important discoveries have only come about in the last five or six years.
“We can do excavations where we can step back and think about it,” Garrison says. “A lot of my colleagues, if you ask them what they would want, it would be time to sit back and think and reflect.”
On the other side of the city, Rita Elliott, Curator of Exhibits and Archaeology for the Coastal Heritage Society is reflecting on all that their dig behind the Roundhouse Museum has uncovered in the past couple weeks.
“Savannah has an incredibly significant amount of archaeology beneath its feet ranging from 10,000 years of Native American sites to colonial, 19th and 20th century sites, and even underwater sites,” Elliott explains.
The CHS is conducting an archaeological survey of the area because they are about to run some water, sewer and electric lines to the future site of the Children’s Museum.
“CHS takes stewardship seriously and does archaeological investigations prior to ground-disturbing activities on the venues we manage,” says Elliott.
So far, they’ve uncovered what appears to be the original wheelhouse of the old depot, part of the transfer table, and another structure that might not have been previously recorded.
To the untrained eye, she’s standing next to a big hole in the ground, but with some explanation, a narrative emerges from the dirt. There are visible lines of different-colored dirt running across the walls of the hole. Each different color represents a different era of in–fill, spots where previous generations had covered old railroad construction.
“In 200 years, when someone comes along, they’ll find our trench,” she says, “although we’ll probably have a report they can read too.”
The excavation near the Roundhouse is just a warm-up for another round of digging that Elliott and her crew hope will begin in the next couple of weeks, searching for undiscovered remnants of Revolutionary War sites around the city.
Savannah is no stranger to exploration, and several significant sites, including the Deptford sites (approximately 2500–100 BCE) and the Irene Mound, have become part of the canon of American archaeological study.
Even though there’ve been decades worth of digs here, a lot of history remains buried. As more of it is discovered, those pieces will help fill in the gaps of our knowledge about the past.
“An archaeologist is never given all the facts, so what you’re trying to do is fill those blanks in,” Garrison explains. “Once you have some of the facts, you try to put it in a holistic picture of what actually went on at that time. When you think you understand that, it’s kind of fun.”
Lecture by Dr. Ervan Garrison
When: April 6, 6:30 p.m.
Where: St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 1802 Abercorn St.
Cost: Free and open to the public