Dr. Nick Honerkamp spends four weeks of his summer turning the dirt of Sapelo Island off Georgia’s coast, where he and his archeology students uncover the history of slaves who worked the plantations.
Gullah/Geechee slave settlements remain archeologically intact on the protected island, offering clues for Honerkamp, who is the director of the Jeffrey L. Brown Institute of Archeology and UC Foundation Professor of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
"I am able to attempt to reconstruct the lives of the people who were responsible for every single success that plantation owner Thomas Spaulding had. It was all their labor — they built the mansion, they plowed the fields, they cut the trees, they harvested the Sea Island cotton and sugar. The only mention of them other than a census indicating that Spalding owned some slaves is a map. To me, on a personal level, I think the lives of people who have accomplished so much deserve more than a map of some cabins that’s not even accurate," Honerkamp said.
Dr. David Crass, state archaeologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Historic Preservation Division, agrees. He said this archeological work has been the vehicle to reconnect the Gullah/Geechee population with a part of history that was in danger of being forgotten.
"The Department of Natural Resources depends on Nick’s research to identify and characterize archaeological sites on the island. This is critical to our management objectives, because Sapelo is one of the most important resources DNR manages," Crass said. "It combines wonderful natural resources with a complex archaeological record. Often we have to find a way to mediate between natural resource management techniques and protection of our archaeological sites. Nick’s research gives us the knowledge base to do that."
Cultural resource management based on Honerkamp’s work provides Georgia with useful information about sensitive areas of Sapelo Island. "There are areas that are better left avoided if they are going to construct a new dorm, for instance, for the University of Georgia. Now they can look at our map and see where not to bulldoze," he said.
Honerkamp hypothesizes that by 1857, the slaves of Sapelo were no longer living in tabby slave cabins, a concrete construction material made from lime, sand and oyster shells. He believes it was cheaper for the slaves to live in wooden frame structures held up by blocks.
"Now imagine what would be left 150 years after 1857. The wood rots away, the blocks are robbed for use, if they were tabby or brick. What I suspected was there would be nails from where those cabins were, so they would mark the footprint of each of these cabins. The ceramics, oyster shells, bones from animals they were eating would not be in the footprint of the house because they had wooden floors, and these items would not fall through wood floors. A common pattern in the 19th century was that they would throw refuse out the entrances and exits of their cabins. That was my working hypothesis, and we think we’ve got that," Honerkamp said.
At the request of Gullah-Geechee residents of the Hog Hammock community on Sapelo, Honerkamp led the UTC field school to conduct research at Behavior Cemetery in summer 2010.
Among the stated goals Honerkamp and UTC student Lindsey Cochran described in the academic paper "Community-Based Mortuary Archaeology On Sapelo Island, Georgia" was an effort to detect the presence of unmarked graves.
In the introduction of the paper, the authors explain: "An observation by a resident speaks directly to this concern: ‘We can’t swing a shovel without waking someone up.’ It is a disquiet shared by many Hog Hammock residents."
Based on imaging software, Honerkamp and Cochran reported anomalies which could be tree roots or non burial features, but "there are clearly many that in all likelihood do record individual unmarked burials … much still remains to be discovered in this area."
The paper has been accepted to the program of the January 2011 conference of the Society for Historical Archeology, one of several collaborative academic papers written by Honerkamp and his students and presented at regional and national conferences.
"I’m interested in the scientific aspects of this research, but what’s tugging at you is the humanities of it, the personal connection," Honerkamp said.