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Reflections of Our Past: The Archaeology of South Carolina

What is Archaeology?
Archaeology is the scientific study of our past through the careful excavation and thorough analysis of material objects, or artifacts, and other evidence preserved in the ground. Through the detailed process of site discovery, excavation, laboratory analysis and research, archaeologists are able to reconstruct how Native Americans, Euro-Americans, and African Americans lived before us. Archaeology tells us not only about the wealthy and powerful, but also how the common people spent their lives in South Carolina. Without archaeology, we would know much less about the rich and varied heritage of our State and about our past. Archaeology, like history, provides us with ties to the past and hopes for the future.

The First South Carolinians: The Paleoindians (12,000 B.C. to 8,000 B.C.)
The earliest inhabitants of South Carolina were the descendants of Asian emigrants who crossed into North America from Siberia about 14,000 years ago (maybe even earlier). These people, called Paleoindians, followed the gradual movement of large game animals across a land bridge connecting Asia and North America. This passageway, called Beringia, was exposed when the late Pleistocene glaciation caused the sea level to fall. Although there were never ice sheets in South Carolina, the climate was cold and now extinct animals roamed over much of our state.

The Paleoindians were nomadic gatherers and hunters, moving often to find new food sources. We know, from comparison with modern nomadic bands, that the Paleoindians probably obtained most of their food from wild plants and small animals, while the large game was hunted whenever possible.

Lanceolate-shaped stone spear points, called "fluted points," were used in the hunting of large game animals. Long and distinct flakes, or flutes, were removed from the spear point's base to midsection to facilitate hafting. Other types of stone tools found include smaller, broader spear points with side-notches and concave bases; scrapers, probably used to prepare hides; and small blades, or cutting instruments.

The Archaic Period Indians (8,000 B.C. to 2,000 B.C.)
As the climate gradually warmed, becoming more moderate, the ice sheets covering North America began to melt. In what is now South Carolina, deciduous forests replaced boreal species and big game animals were replaced by smaller game such as white-tailed deer. Accompanying the environmental changes were also changes in the adaptation of the Indians to their surroundings. This time is known as the Archaic Period, which spanned about 6,000 years.

Palmers (23106 bytes)    Savannah River Points (28583 bytes)

During this time, the Indians continued to be characterized by small kinship-based nomadic groups which frequently moved in search of food. It is clear that the aboriginal population began to increase and sites representing this cultural period are found throughout our state. Late in this period some groups began to inhabit the Savannah River basin to exploit the freshwater shellfish, while other groups were gradually adapting to life along the coast.

The Indians continued to use spear points, although their form slowly changed from thin, corner-notched types, called Palmer and Kirk by archaeologists, to broad stemmed points called Stanly and Savannah River Stemmed. Other stone tools included knives, scrapers, grooved axes, drills, and grinding stones. Bone awls, needles, and projectile points were also common tools. A major technological change was the introduction of the atlatl, or throwing stick, which helped the Indians propel their spears with great force and accuracy. The introduction of carved soapstone bowls late in this period, indicates that the nomadic lifestyle was becoming more sedentary.

The Woodland Period Indians (2,000 B.C. to A.D. 1000)
About 3,500 years ago, many new developments began among South Carolina's native population. Along the coast of our State, Indians began to produce the first fired pottery in North America. This pottery, called Stallings, was tempered with Spanish moss and is often called "fiber-tempered." In addition, a number of groups along the coast began to more permanently settle at specific sites to exploit the rich coastal environment.

Stallings Pottery (30582 bytes)                              

These people gathered plant foods, fished, collected shellfish, and hunted. The sites where they lived, known today as "shell rings" are large doughnut-shaped accumulations of shell, bone, and other refuse.

Some Indian groups probably developed seasonal rounds, moving to different areas during different times of the year, to exploit specific resources such as wild plant food or small game. They continued to make pottery and the changes in the temper and decorations on this pottery allows archaeologists to date, often within a few hundred years, the different groups. Late during the Woodland Period some Indian groups began to establish true villages. A few groups were influenced by the religious practices of the Ohio Valley Indians and began to bury their dead under mounds of earth.

The Mississippian Period Indians (A.D. 1000 to 1600)
By A.D. 1200 another major change was already taking place. Influenced by cultures to the west, some Indian groups were adopting a new way of life, often referred to as Mississippian. Agriculture, emphasizing corn, beans, and squash, was introduced, and the groups began to build large platform mounds with temples on the top. Groups came together in chiefdoms to live in villages near these mounds. The bow and arrow began to be used and projectile points became small and triangular shaped (actually this may have even occurred earlier, in the Woodland Period).

Pee Dee Pottery (18793 bytes)    Caraway Points (19379 bytes)

Several of these large village and mound complexes have been studied in South Carolina.   Perhaps the best known, Town Creek, is in North Carolina and is operated as a state park by the North Carolina Department of Historic Sites.

The Historic Period (A.D. 1600 to the present)
The Historic Period in South Carolina begins with the arrival of Spanish explorers and the English settlement of Charles Town in 1670. the rapid expansion by Euro-Americans led to the destruction of most Native American cultures in South Carolina. The Indians were displaced from their homeland, decimated by European disease and large numbers were exported as slaves. Within 50 years very few Indians were left on the South Carolina coast; only a few small enclaves on the coast survived by becoming what were known as "settlement Indians," or groups that adopted European ways and lived under the shadow of a European settlement. Inland only the larger groups, such as Catawba and Cherokee survived the onslaught of the Europeans and their diseases.

Catawba Pottery (29068 bytes)             Trade Bead (10518 bytes)

The rich and varied history of South Carolina from about A.D. 1670 to the early twentieth century may be divided between the Colonial, Antebellum, and Postbellum periods. The study of such varied sites as farmsteads, urban houses and shops, plantation slave rows, and industrial sites helps us obtain a better understanding of early Carolina lifeways.


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