Madison Square

Madison Square
Savannah Under Fire archaeologists work in Madison Square, Savannah, GA, surrounded by visitors and citizens interested in our dig.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Before GI's: Original American Soldiers

As I work on Memorial Day, I was thinking about our original American soldiers and sailors who fought in the American Revolution.  My favorite being George Washington. But he gets enough press.

I would like to celebrate the soldiers who slogged through the mud but didn't get recognition. Men like Eleazar Phillips, who after being discharged from the militia in Charleston, served aboard the Wasp as a Steward and Purser under Capt. Bulfinch. Historical documents indicate he was present for the death Casimir Pulaski aboard the Wasp after the 1779 Battle of Savannah.  After being honorably discharged again, Phillips joined another militia company, serving in the Siege of Charleston. In May of 1780, he was taken prisoner for 12 months.

Phillips served for low, frequently late, pay with no promise of a pension or GI Bill. If the rebels lost.... Well, Ben Franklin said it best at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."

The pages below are Martha Phillips' 1838 deposition, part of her application for her husband's pension.

Before 1818, pensions were only awarded to officers or those killed or disabled. (Widows could apply for the pensions of deceased servicemen.) The Revolutionary War pensions records are available on These records, mostly from the National Archives, have been scanned and are searchable. Some records are available free of charge, or you can subscribe to have access to all of the records.

I highly recommend browsing through their stash. While old documents can be difficult to read, the software makes it as easy as possible.  The stories of the servicemen vibrantly come through the documents. And footnote has documents throughout the entire span on American history, so don't stop at the Revolution!

Monday, May 24, 2010

scrubbing without bubbles

I have not posted recently because I have been washing and rebagging artifacts. There isn't much to say about scrubbing tiny bits of ceramics and brick with a toothbrush. Do check out my (mildly) humorous video, "The Dungeon", about the process though.

But while this is not the most exciting part of doing archaeology, it is important. Washing away the dirt allows me to see the details of the object. Doing a preliminary sort while rebagging the clean artifacts makes analyzing the artifacts much easier. Also, I put the cleaned artifacts in special archivally-sound plastic bags. These bags do not give off nasty petrochemicals over time, like ordinary grocery store zip-locks do. These bags are part of how we keep the artifacts safe and preserved for generations, ensuring that future archaeologists will be able to restudy the artifacts. Remember, once an archaeological site is dug, it is gone forever. It is the archaeologists duty to preserve all of the artifacts, field records, maps, photographs, etc... so that the site can be restudied by future archaeologists with better technology. Or the data can be used to compare several similar sites to learn about the bigger picture of human behavior and cultures.

In other news, The Civil War Preservation Trust has announced the 2010 Most Endangered Civil War Battlefields, including Pickett's Mill Battlefield State Historic Site in Georgia. Check out their cool interactive map.  Or get involved through donation, becoming a member, or speaking out.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Metal detecting archaeologists

After the disastrous defeat in 1779, the allies fled past two (still present) Jewish Cemeteries where a regiment of Haitian volunteers protected the retreating soldiers. Earlier in the year, we did ground penetrating radar and shovel test pits over several acres of private property around the cemeteries. These property owners generously allowed us to harass them a second time, as we conducted a metal detector survey last week. The results of our survey can be found on the YouTube video, "The Retreat". There is also a two-part interview with Dan Battle, an archaeologist and our metal detector expert/consultant.

I have previously written about our difficulty in finding sites this fieldwork season. I have asked if any citizens out there have found Revolutionary War items in their backyards. (Email photos to No one has responded. So we turned to the people who have found artifacts: the metal detector hobbyists.

Even being in the same room as "evil metal detecting looters" would send some archaeologists running for the hills. I would like to propose a more moderate, central position for both archaeologists and metal detectorists. First, there are many different attitudes among metal detectorists ranging from people who loot and sell artifacts for money to those who only collect on sites about to destroyed by development. Selling artifacts for profit is completely unethical for the professional archaeologist (see the Society for American Archaeology Principles of Archaeological Ethics). 

But what about sites that were destroyed and no archaeology was conducted? What if we could recover some information from a metal detectorists who hunted part of the 1779 Battle of Savannah retreat during a construction project? What if that information could be used to find more of the site and ultimately led to more site preservation?

Perhaps metal detectorists and archaeologists could work together on projects where archaeologists supply the methodology and scientific rigor, and detectorists supply the manpower and expertise with their machines. This has been wildly successful on the BRAVO project (Battlefield Restoration & Archaeological Volunteer Organization) which focuses on the Revolutionary War Battle of Monmouth in Freehold, NJ.  Dan Sivilich gave an excellent presentation at our 2010 Society for Historical Archaeology conference symposium, Revolutionary Steps: Marching Towards Research and Preservation. His notes are posted on our slideshare site.

Savannah is losing archaeological sites at an alarming, rapid rate. We all care about Savannah's history; let's work together to preserve and protect it. Archaeologists will have to admit that metal detectorists are more knowledgeable in certain areas. Metal detectorists will have to exchange learning new information for keeping bags of useless artifacts. (useless, of course, because they have been pulled out of the context). I think we can find a d├ętente where we can save the last of the Revolution in Savannah.

Disagree with me? Fire away in the comments section.