The fine scale of time

Pre-history emerges along the Broad River

As a Carnegie Foundation top-tier research institution, USC attracts talent from around the globe. But it’s not just our reputation that draws researchers to the Palmetto State. The university’s location provides unique opportunities for scholarship and collaboration. Our series of stories about research that can only be done here originally ran in USC Times this fall.

Soon after he arrived at Carolina four years ago, archaeologist Andy White and a few colleagues stumbled onto a fascinating site. Located along the Broad River in Fairfield County, the site offers a glimpse into the lives of people who camped along the same riverbank thousands of years ago.

“It’s a site we can learn a lot from,” White says. “It’s great for educating the public, learning really interesting things about North American pre-history and South Carolina pre-history, and teaching students.”

Over the centuries, as the river overflowed its banks, long sand formations were created, preserving artifacts that were buried within layer upon layer of soil, with some pieces 10 feet below the surface. The site allows archaeologists to see things, including pieces of pottery and projectile points, that were left at the site during numerous visits over the course of at least 7,000 years.

“It’s a record of human behavior of small groups using the same spot over the millennia. And it’s going to help us learn about what they were doing there, which didn’t stay the same,” White says. “It’s like reading a book — you go through and try to figure out the story. It’s a painstaking process, but it’s a great way to teach students to do it. We’re learning a lot and will learn a lot more in the future with a sustained effort.”

White, a research assistant professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, has run field schools for two years with students at the site. He says the first couple years have been spent trying to get a handle on the chronology, learning the age and types of the deposits they are finding. They have found artifacts that were used in families’ everyday lives, including intact deposits, known as “features,” like pits for processing food and posts for shelters.

“These are great time capsules. They can tell us what people did on a fine scale of time — maybe an afternoon or an hour,” White says. “It’s those details that will let us fill in a part of the story we don’t know yet because these kinds of sites are so rare in this part of the country.”

The dig site, located on private property, was discovered when White and his colleagues examined a bank where some sand had been removed with a backhoe.  Artifacts were exposed deep in the layers of earth. The potential of the land as an archaeological site was clear.

“Archaeology is very place-oriented,” White explains. “There are general patterns that we try to understand through time and across place, but each site is unique. Part of the challenge is to work in one very small location and try to figure out how that fits into the bigger picture.”


Share this Story! Let friends in your social network know what you are reading about