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History under the highway
Archaeologists uncover artifacts at GDOT-sponsored dig
In the shadow of a 400 year-old live oak, Archeologist Rita Elliot shows visitors the excavation near King George Blvd. The tree will saved in the new highway expansion.

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The bulldozers are coming to destroy the archaeology site that Rita Elliot has been excavating for the past three months, but she doesn't mind.

The 20-acre parcel sits at a bustling corner of King George Boulevard and the 204 Abercorn Extension in Georgetown, behind the Parker's gas station and surrounded by apartment complexes. Adjacent to one of the busiest commuter on-ramps in the county, the area is slated for an imminent freeway expansion by the Georgia Dept. of Transportation.

The site straddles what was once part of two 19th-century sprawling plantations and has lain fallow since it was farmed in the 1950s. The Abercorn Archaeology site has yielded pre-Civil War artifacts, old slave quarters and soil samples that have allowed Elliot and nine other professional archaeologists to interpret what life was like here centuries ago.

"The bad news is all this will be gone in a few weeks," says Elliot, sweeping her arm across the forested site as the traffic drones behind her past the trees. "But the good news is that we've collected so much information."

The GDOT expansion is what has allowed the archaeologists there in the first place. GDOT is required by law to provide an archaeological survey, and it commissioned the dig overseen by New South Associates, a cultural resource management firm based in Stone Mountain, GA. The land was purchased from private developers who are not burdened by the same restrictions to which government agencies are beholden.

"There are no ordinances in Savannah or Chatham County that protect its archaeological resources," shrugs Elliot, who also excavated Revolutionary War-era Battlefield Park on Savannah's westside. "If GDOT hadn't done this, we would know nothing."

Archaeology is methodical, often tedious work. One young woman crouches on the ground, carefully removing small piles of dirt with a teaspoon. Another dusts a brick with a paintbrush.

Everything at the Abercorn site is documented meticulously, each shard of pottery and rusted nail sent back to New South's headquarters for deeper analysis and categorization.

Elliot points to a neat square, just one of hundreds of 1-meter by 1-meter units around the property that were carefully dug out once the top layer of plowed farm soil was removed. This one is deeper than the others, and Elliot speculates that it could have been an old root vegetable cellar or perhaps a privy. Other squares reveal fence post markings, a pile of bricks that was once a chimney and the rusted blade of what might be a desiccated iron shovel.

But Elliot clarifies that it's not the things themselves that are so important, but what they mean. She quotes American Museum of Natural History anthropologist David Hurst Thomas: "It's not what you find, it's what you find out."

Defining archaeology as "the scientific study of how people lived a long time ago based on the things they left behind," Elliot cites this dig of particular importance to telling the African-American story of the area. The archaeologists have excavated and documented three brick slave dwellings, visible on old maps of the plantations.

"Those folks don't show up much on the historical record because they didn't read or write," says Elliot. "With the artifacts and the soil samples, we can see how well or poorly they ate, what every day life was like, what level of autonomy they had."

The excavation may also give more information about the nearby Ogeechee Insurrection of 1868, when a group of freedmen were thwarted trying to claim their right to the "40 acres and a mule" promised to them during Reconstruction. (The promise was revoked by President Andrew Johnson after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.)

"I expect some of the features will be from that period," says Elliot.

One of the most defining attributes of the site isn't human-made at all: It's a towering live oak, estimated at 400 years old. The tree has become something of a mascot for the archaeologists, and a forthcoming children's book about the Abercorn Archaeology dig will be told from its perspective. GDOT will leave the tree intact and has incorporated it into the cement cloverleaf and onramp design.

"The live oak tree is a recognized part of this historic property and is a unique participant in that is 'watched over' the evolution of this cultural landscape," said Pamela Baughman of GDOT in a press releace. "We have preserve it so that it can observe the evolution of the landscape yet to come."

Though the rest of the broken bricks and ancient oyster shells will be soon be buried forever, the massive amount of data the archaeologists have extracted during the three-month Abercorn dig will live on. An elementary school curriculum is being developed based on the information, and the curated artifacts could reveal even more as technology advances.

Elliot believes this is the real value of archaeology, preserving information for future generations.

"This collection will keep on educating infinitum," she says.