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Student archaeologist start long-term dig

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POSTED: July 3, 2009 11:39 a.m.
Photo by Lauren Hunsberger/

Archaeology students Bianca Isias, left, and Jeff Spear demonstrate how to set up a test-pit.

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Fifteen students and scientists from New York spent June in the sweltering Georgia outback with one purpose: To dig. And dig. And dig.
In from the coast at Sunbury, on the 6,000 acres of Springfield Plantation, the archaeologists and archaeology students dug more than 2,000 test-pits, uncovering what crew leader Matt Sanger from Columbia University said was a surprisingly large number of artifacts.
He said the work was the first of its kind on the Georgia Coast. And it’s only the beginning of what he believes could become a full-scale excavation site over the next decade.
“We’re forming the foundation, the bedrock of all future archaeology for this area.” Sanger said.
Helping collect data, the students, battled mosquitoes, heat and thick vegetation while learning how to dig and mark the pits, depending on whether there was something found.
Sanger said on a normal dig, a six to seven percent find rate is considered pretty successful.
“About 25 percent of our sites were positive,” he said. “Almost all of it was ceramics, which are very useful because they’re very temporally sensitive. Even a small piece can tell you what time period it came from.”
Sanger said the oldest artifacts found were about 5,000 years old and were among others dating up to the colonial period.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Nora Machuga with Barnard college. “But, it was really exciting.”
Once in New York again, the students and scientists will wash, identify and catalog the findings, eventually sharing the information with others.

Grunt work
Sanger said all the findings didn’t come without hard work and determination. Even with 15 years of field work, Sanger said he experienced the toughest conditions of his career in subtropical, swampy Georgia terrain. He was proud and surprised that not a single student dropped out.
“They were amazing. Most of them are 18, 19 years old and from
the Northeast. So they’ve never experienced conditions like these,” he said. “We went through a rigorous interview process, but I
was still worried about the entire crew. We got into it
really bad on our second
day. We went into this
one area and I’ve never
seen a survey site as tough as this with the dog hobble and pine trees and vines,” he said.
It didn’t deter the students from both Barnard college and Columbia university.
“It’s so worth it. There’s so much here,” Galen Boone, a Barnard student said. “We’re the original explorers.”
The diggers did get help from a new technology, light detection and ranging. Sanger explained LiDAR uses radar to map land elevations, allowing the team to detect natural and man-made sources of water, salt and other structures that could have effected where people frequented a longtime ago.

Reasons for research
Laura Devendorf, who owns Springfield Plantation, said for many years, archaeologists have expressed interest in marshes, hammocks and outlying islands, but not just in from the coastline.
“What has been missing is what’s on the mainland,” Devendorf said.
On a mission to answer historical questions, Devendorf opened her land to the research, but not to just anyone. She said the New York group was the first team to get the OK from a newly formed board of directors made up of archaeologists from all over the country that will oversee activity on the land.
“We thought, ‘It’s got to be done, but in a highly professional manner.’ Basic protocols are now in place,” Devendorf said. “It’s exciting for all of us. There are all these things we want to know, and now we have the masters and they’re making sure it’s done properly,”
Besides discovering the history of the land, Devendorf said another goal is public outreach. She wants everyone to realize the historical value of the coast. Flocks of residents took her offer to attend the Day of Archaeology at Springfield on Saturday where the students displayed ancient techniques of building waddle and daub house, firing ceramics and carving wood canoes.
Devendorf said she’s excited about the formation of the foundation as well as the group’s first findings.
 

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