Sea Island Strata

At a former Georgia plantation, archaeologists delve into both the workaday and spiritual lives of slaves

Artifacts unearthed on Ossabaw Island offer insights into the lives of slaves. Stephen Morton / Getty Images

On the northern end of Ossabaw Island, three former slave cabins sit in a perfect row—remains of a plantation that predates the Revolutionary War. Dan Elliott stands next to the cabins one morning, near palm trees silhouetted against the gray sky. For five weeks he has been digging inside the cabins. Now he has set his shovel aside.

Wearing a blue-striped train conductor's cap and dirt-stained jeans, he holds the handle of a ground-penetrating radar device that looks like a lawn mower. At its base is a small black box that emits radar, and attached to the handle is a laptop computer. Elliott is an archaeologist and the president of a nonprofit archaeology firm called the Lamar Institute, based in Savannah. On his computer screen is a map of Ossabaw from the year 1860. It shows six additional slave cabins in the same row as the three still standing today. He hopes the radar will detect the buried foundations of the vanished buildings.

As he pushes the device across the grass, a readout like that of a seismograph during an earthquake appears on the computer screen. Elliott, a soft-spoken Georgia native, breaks into a broad grin. "The ground is crawling with objects," he says.

The artifacts that Elliott has unearthed may give new insight into how the people who lived here as long ago as the 1700s endured slavery and retained their African traditions. Ossabaw may be "the gold standard for understanding slave life on the barrier islands," Elliott says.

Somewhat surprisingly, he's the first archaeologist to break ground on the 250-year-old plantation. For much of the 20th century, Ossabaw—about 15 miles south of Savannah—was the home of Eleanor Torrey West, of Grosse Point, Michigan. She inherited the island from her parents, who'd bought it in 1924 as a winter retreat. A series of previous owners, mostly wealthy businessmen, had used Ossabaw to hunt hogs and deer and had kept the cabins intact. In 1978, West gave the island to Georgia, with the stipulation that it become the state's first heritage preserve and be protected from development.

Ossabaw's first plantation was owned by John Morel, a Savannah merchant, who acquired the island in 1763, not long after a contemporary gave it a lukewarm assessment, writing that it was "very much broken with Creeks and Marshes" and had "no large Quantity of good planting Land in any one Place." But Morel, who owned rice and cotton plantations on the mainland, found fertile soil. He planted indigo, a crop much in demand for making blue dye. When Morel died in 1776, the island's 26,000 acres were divided into four sections: North End, Middle Place, South End and Buckhead, and bequeathed to his sons. After the Revolutionary War, the Morel sons planted a new crop, Sea Island cotton, which had stronger and silkier filaments than cotton grown on the mainland.

The North End plantation—the site of Elliott's dig—prospered and expanded from about 30 slaves before the American Revolution to around 70 prior to the Civil War. No written records of slave life survive from the North End, but journals from the South End document slaves with names such as Cyrus, July and Young Betsey. They plowed and fertilized the plantation, picked cotton, built fences and butchered hogs.

They also made a cement-like mixture called tabby that was used to construct the three standing slave cabins on the North End. Tabby, made with lime, oyster shells, sand and water, was popular in the coastal Southeast, where building stones and brick-making soil were scarce. The cabins measure 32 feet by 16 feet, a common size for slave quarters in the South. A chimney runs up the middle of each cabin and divides it into two rooms. Each room probably housed at least four people. The cabins would have been "crowded, with little privacy, and smoky during cold weather" when a fire was burning, says William Dusinberre, a historian at the University of Warwick in England.

George Fore, an architectural conservator and consultant to the Ossabaw Island Foundation, estimated that two of the cabins were built about two decades before the Civil War. He discovered a pattern of marks on some beams that suggests a steam-engine-powered mill produced the lumber. Elliott dated the third cabin to the 1820s after finding at the base of its chimney a half-cent coin from 1825.

Many of the artifacts may reflect the slaves' spiritual beliefs. Elliott has unearthed alligator teeth and raccoon bones, items often part of a mojo bag, a collection of objects the slaves used for supernatural purposes, he says. He also found 16 glass beads, many of them blue. "We don't know how the slaves wore them," Elliott says, but they may have been used to ward off evil spirits. According to African-American folklore along Georgia's barrier islands, ghosts are afraid of blue because it reminds them of heaven.

The most intriguing find so far is a pewter tobacco-pipe charm about an inch long. A carving of a face topped by a crown appears on the front. Elliott's interpretation of it is based in part on a similar pipe excavated from a pre-Civil War settlement of free African-Americans in Augusta, Georgia. He speculates that the king's image may be modeled on a statue excavated in the 1840s at Nineveh, the ancient capital of the Assyrian empire, in present-day Iraq. In the Old Testament, the prophet Nahum foresees the destruction of the people of Nineveh because of their wicked ways. For the slaves, the Nineveh-inspired pipe charm may have been a symbol of the Southern plantation system and their hope for its eventual destruction, says Elliott.

Most of Elliott's artifacts come from the 19th century, but the deeper he dug, the farther back in time he went. He uncovered 18th-century objects such as brass buttons and shards of English slipware, a coarse pottery with combed decorations that is rarely found after the Colonial era. Inside the middle cabin he discovered 44 tobacco pipe stems that date on average to about 1769; other archaeologists have documented that holes in pipe stems grew smaller over the years as the technology to make them improved. The pipes and other artifacts led Elliott to conclude that an earlier slave dwelling once sat where the middle cabin was built.

Using ground-penetrating radar, Elliott has found promising places to dig in the future, including the possible remains of a Colonial-era, circular-shaped dwelling and what looks to be another buried cabin. Artifacts from Ossabaw give us "a personal window into what slaves' lives were like," says David Crass, Georgia's state archaeologist—lives that otherwise were recorded merely as property.

Eric Wills lives in Washington, D.C. and specializes in writing about history and architecture.

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