Archaeology in a Geechee Graveyard

By Honerkamp, Nicholas; Crook, Ray | Southeastern Archaeology, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Archaeology in a Geechee Graveyard


Honerkamp, Nicholas, Crook, Ray, Southeastern Archaeology


"We can't swing a shovel without waking someone up." This admonition from an African American Geechee resident of the Hog Hammock community on Sapelo Island, Georgia, is important for two reasons. First, it expresses a serious concern about the Island's Behavior Cemetery (9MC498): the presence of unmarked graves and disturbances to them whenever new graves are dug. Second, it was the stimulus for the resumption of a community-based program of research on Sapelo that was initiated during the 1970s by the University of West Georgia (then West Georgia College) (Crook 2008; Crook et al. 2003; Juengst 1980).

The Geechee residents of Sapelo Island, also referred to as Gullah-Geechee and self-identified as Saltwater Geechee (see Bailey 2000), are members of a distinctive cultural group who speak Sea Island Creole English or Gullah. "Saltwater" refers to island residents, as opposed to "Freshwater" residents on the mainland. The descendants of slaves on the rice and cotton plantations along the Atlantic coast between southern North Carolina and northeastern Florida, their numbers have thinned and survival of their cultural traditions now is endangered. "Gullah" as a cultural name is used by those living north of the Savannah River, while "Geechee" is used by those living south of the Savannah River, including on Sapelo Island (e.g., Georgia Writers' Project, Savannah Unit 1940; Pollitzer 1999; National Park Service 2005).

While there has recently been an explosion of research initiatives on Sapelo (e.g., DeVan 2011; Harris 2008; Honerkamp 2008; Honerkamp and Bean 2009; Honerkamp and DeVan 2008; Jefferies and Moore 2008; Thompson 2007; Worth 2008), the present study is unusual in that it represents an overt partnership between two communities: local residents and nonlocal, academic archaeologists. Three goals were defined for research in the cemetery based on consultations and meetings between representatives of the community and the principal archaeologists: (1) record all extant grave markers in Behavior Cemetery and make this information easily accessible to local residents; (2) determine where future graves could be dug without disturbance to existing graves, relying in part on the application of ground penetrating radar (GPR) to detect unmarked graves; and (3) investigate the spatial and temporal parameters of a nineteenth-century slave site within the cemetery parcel. The focus in this article is on how the first two goals were met. Information about the slave site found in the cemetery is summarized elsewhere (see Honerkamp and Crook 2010).

Under the direction of the authors, archaeological research at the approximately 2-ha (5-acre) Behavior Cemetery (Figure 1) was carried out with students enrolled in a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) archaeological field school during May 2010. Three consultants assisted the archaeologists. Using a RAMAC/X3M Integrated Radar Control Unit mounted on a wheeled cart and linked to a RAMAC XVI 1 Monitor (Firmware, version 3.2.36), Dan Elliott completed a GPR survey in three areas of the graveyard, while UTC GIS Specialist Andy Carroll used a Trimble R6 pole-mounted, survey-grade GPS antenna to generate baseline geospatial coordinates on significant points in the project area. The antenna was linked to a virtual reference system for real-time data correction via cell phone on the Verizon 3G network. Near the end of the fieldwork Michele Johnson, Director of the Hog Hammock Library, coordinated and publicized an Archaeology Day program, which presented the preliminary results of the project on site to the Sapelo community.

Historical Background

To say that Sapelo Island has a rich and complex cultural history is an understatement. Besides an extensive prehistoric archaeological record that extends from the Late Archaic through the Mississippian periods, important Spanish-Native American contact sites and historic components associated with British and French occupants occur there. …

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