Interview with Bob Welch, an amateur archaeologist in South Carolina.
-What got you interested in archaeology? When did you get started in the field?
I was born on a farm in South Georgia but raised in Central Florida. When I would go visit the family farm in Ga. I came across ‘arrowheads’ in the fields which greatly intrigued me. Soon I was passionately searching and collecting any ‘Indian’ artifacts that I could find. I showed most of these including many pottery shards to Dr. Marcoux soon after we first met which he was very helpful in identifying. Also, as I grew up in Fla. in the 1960’s, we had several ‘treasure’ ships discovered off the Fla. coast from the 1715 Spanish Fleet that were lost during a hurricane. Other such ships were also discovered from other long past Colonial period adventures, so my interest was always one of dreaming about finding great long lost ‘treasures as well. However, life didn’t go that way for me to pursue those dreams even though I never stopped looking for the Native American artifacts at the old farm when I could.
My first real opportunity to get involved in actual archaeology was about 10 yrs. ago. I currently live in Summerville, SC, which has the Colonial Historical Site of Colonial Dorchester. This town was founded about 1697 by ‘pilgrims who had left Dorchester, England and migrated to Dorchester, Mass. Then, after some years, they decided to move south and came to this location on the Ashley River and founded the town of Dorchester, SC. (I think there’s a pattern here). The town existed for about a hundred years but was burned after the occupying British troops left at the end of the American Revolution and never really recovered. This site is a state historical site maintained by the parks dept. and is sorta unique in that it was never ‘built’ over and, therefore, a pristine site for archaeology. About 10 yrs. ago the resident archaeologist opened it up for the public to come on Saturdays to assist with digging and sifting the artifacts that were on various house sites in the town. I jumped at the opportunity to participate and was blessed to be able to learn a tremendous amount about the artifacts that we recovered, the proper techniques to do so, curating the artifacts and maybe, more importantly, deeper history about the site and it’s role in our early colonization of SC and the US than I would ever learn in history books alone. This went on for about 5 yrs. or so and then the program was suspended at the park.
However, due to my interest, I was able to meet and work with a number of other area archaeologists on some other projects and sites so that now I have a great relationship with many in the filed which is very helpful when I need information pertaining to the site that I work on my own.
-When you start a project, what steps do you take to insure you are doing things “by the book”?
“By the Book” is an interesting query as I have found that different field project managers vary somewhat on their approach. Mostly they are the same but may implement some different techniques. This doesn’t necessarily change the outcome significantly it’s just a variation due to that leaders background training and preferences. Since I have learned some different styles, I try to work with what works best for me. I have yet to be trained on the use of a transit, so I don’t worry much about elevations overall but do keep up with depth of excavation as I work a unit. I usually mark off a 1 meter square of an area I want to dig then excavate 10cm layers recording what is found, soil color and variations, any features, compass direction, GPS location, etc. From my experience with curating in the lab at Colonial Dorchester, I know basic cleaning of artifacts and can identify most of the ceramics and such that are found. Let me interject this: unlike most professional archaeologists, I have used a metal detector on my site to locate potential structures or other features. This gives me an easier method of locating a potential site worthy of my efforts to discover what was left behind and where. To answer this question: I use the experience gained from working with the fine archaeologists I have assisted to go about what I do with the site including the locating, excavation, recording and curating of artifacts. One more thing, I learned electrolysis from my friend at the Charleston Museum (the oldest museum in the US) so that I can properly clean and preserve most metal artifacts that I recover as well.
-Are you working on any projects at the moment?
A couple of years ago I was hunting deer on a friend’s property a few miles out of town. On one of the hunting roads, I noticed some ceramic shards that I knew were from the colonial period. I mentioned this to another friend of mine who happens to be the Senior Historian at the same CRM firm that Dr. Marcoux once worked (ask him about Charlie Philips). Charlie was able to locate for me a platte map of the property dated 1801 showing the small rice plantation being sold from one gentleman to another. That first owner had owned it since 1767. Most of the artifacts bear this out as they are dating to the third quarter of the 18th century. With my metal detector, I was able to locate an area that seems to be where slaves were living as I have excavated a fairly large ‘trash pit’ full of many European imported ceramic shards as well as a lot of ‘Colonoware’ shards (African slave made pottery). Early this year I used the detector to locate at least 2 (or more) structures with many hand-wrought nails, cast iron pot fragments, buckle, thimble, brass drawer handle, and axe heads.
Unfortunately, for me, I haven’t been able to dig as much this year as before. Our spring was very rainy, and the soil is very sticky clay like when wet. Then the summer was quite hot which is a lot tougher now that I’m older. Plus, as Dr. Marcoux can tell you I actually passed out from the heat while helping with his team that came in June. This has made me more susceptible to getting over heated. So I’m looking forward to COOLER weather here soon so I can get started again on these new sites. Plus, my friend the landowner (who also owns the Lord Ashley Site property) has a lot of land on each side of this small rice plantation. Going by the platt map I have and another time period map Charlie gave me, there are more small rice plantation sites to be found and explored on each side of this one! So far I have found part of a site on what would be the next plantation to the north of the one I’m working. Lots to do!
-What is the coolest thing you’ve found?
The coolest thing that I have found? Oh my, that’s a hard one. One thing that I have learned in the past few years of being involved in archaeology is this: there are many fantastic ‘treasures’ that have little or no monetary value, especially to the uninformed. So much of what is found is ‘ordinary stuff’ but very valuable in what it reveals. It tells a story, a history of a time long past. It tells us so much more than a mere history book can. Of people, their lives, struggles, joys, failures and successes. Their families, customs and rituals, the tools they used. Whether or not they were making their own items or able to import them from afar. Their wealth or lack thereof. So many things about their lives that we don’t know and sometimes take for granted. Finding these things that reveal those stories and how those people lived, that is our real treasure. Having said all that I will attempt to share a few ‘cool finds’ with you.
At Colonial Dorchester, the first really neat thing I found was a very small intact thimble, green with patina from the brass lying in the ground for over 200 years. I was told that due to the small size it would have likely belonged to a young child or possibly a small fingered lady. On that same site, various ones of us digging found several pieces of a commemorative plate to George Washington. We know this because the date of his death was inscribed on some of the fragments. On another site at this park, during what was the last foundation that we uncovered before the program was suspended. I was screening along and came across what looked like a small bit of ‘frayed’ string. I was about to discard it when, almost as a joke, I handed it to a young lady archaeologist that was volunteering there with us. She took it and examined it and started getting sort of excited. Then she showed it to the resident archaeologist, and together they continued to try and clean it up some more to better identify it. Finally, everyone was almost ‘freaking out’ because what we found was a small bit of GOLD thread from off of some very fancy decorative clothing worn by someone of great wealth living in the town in the 18th century! Pics were taken and emailed to some archaeology people in our area and around the state as almost no one had ever found anything like it before. And to think, I had almost tossed it away………Whoa.
At the Lord Ashley site, we found a good number of glass beads that were brought over for trade with the Native Americans. Dr. Marcoux is very instrumental in helping identify these as he is very well versed in this area. The Charleston Museum has a display of some of the nice finds we have come across the last few years from this site. The field school of 2013 found several areas of a possible moat that surrounded the compound in the 1670’s and this moat area was used as a trash dumping place, so a lot of neat artifacts were found there. In the part that I was helping with we found a good number of fragments of a type of stoneware that was unfamiliar to our ‘experts’. Martha Zeirden from the museum researched and found that what we were discovering was called ‘Fulham ware’ a new type of stoneware that was just starting to be made in London in 1671! That was exciting as it helped date the site and was an early form of a ceramic new on the market at that time.
On the site that I’m working on now I have had several really neat finds. Several early, middle and late Archaic period ‘arrowheads’ have come to surface. But the refuge pit that I have dug for the last year or so has yielded a number of really cool finds. Mostly everyday kinds of things from the time period and many are datable to the third quarter of the 18th century. I have one coin so far that is in awful condition but has been identified as an English half penny dated 1789. Another object is a small brass drawer ‘pull’ that is pictured in Noel Hume’s book on Colonial artifacts dating to 1685 to 1720. I was able to re-assemble one of the broken wine bottles that I found about 80 percent. But one little half of a bottle is really neat. It’s small and has embossed lettering on it. My reference person saw a picture of it and said late 19th century. I wasn’t convinced, so I searched the internet and found out the history of this little vessel. A man in London put together an ‘elixir’ of 27 ingredients and called it Robert Turlington’s ‘Balsam of Life’. The top portion of the bottle is missing, but enough of the body and base remain that it is easily identifiable. He began manufacturing this elixir in 1754 and his bottles WERE embossed which was very uncommon because of the expense to do that in the period. His product was made for a number of years, so we don’t know when this one was made but when I told the folks at the museum about it, they were amazed. They had heard of it but never seen an example of this bottle. More recently I found a gilded button that is pretty neat and has the manufacturer’s name stamped on the back, so I was able to get a little information on that as well. The axe heads, cast iron pot, plow frame and blade, several hoes and other tools are great as well since they speak to the everyday life on the plantation. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the ‘Colonoware’ fragments that I have found on this site. This is slave made pottery manufactured by the Africans brought here during that time who made their pottery in the ways that had been passed down for many generations of their tribes in Africa. Sometimes I find shards with some design work on them which is kind of rare. It was the Africans from specific areas that brought the culture of rice to America and from whom the early Europeans learned to cultivate rice which made them quite wealthy. These are some of the really ‘cool’ finds I have been privileged to find.
-What is the goal of your excavations?
My goal of the excavations that I’m currently involved with is to possibly get enough presentable finds together along with the research necessary to display them in a local museum for the public to see and learn of their founding ‘Fathers’ as it were of our area of the colony of South Carolina. We actually have as early a history in our county (Dorchester) as anyone, from the European Colonization period, and I don’t think very many people in this area know or appreciate that fact. If we can display the evidence and educate them with their past history as it directly relates to where they live then maybe, they can grasp a new appreciation for what has taken place right under their feet and with a renewed sense of pride seek to pass that knowledge onto each approaching generation. If school children have a place to go and see how their ancestors lived and worked and founded this great country, with great toil, trial, and adversity (both slave and free) then hopefully we can give them something to appreciate, hold on to and seek to preserve. I’m told that a new museum is ‘on the drawing board’ to be built in our county seat in the near future. Maybe that will be an appropriate venue for what I’ve been blessed to discover at this site. I surely hope so! Even if not it’s a fun adventure, and I’m learning a lot, sharing what I find out with whomever wants to hear about it. Keeps this old guy off the street anyway.
So, I hope I didn’t bore you completely to tears. I can talk about this stuff for hours as is fascinates me to no end. If you need anything else from me, please let me know and I will be glad to assist in any way that I can.
Welch, Bob. Personal Interview. 23 October 2015.