Clemson students hope to dig up the past at Fort Hill archaeological site
CLEMSON — Students and faculty hope to unearth remnants that help tell the stories of the men, women and children who lived and worked as slaves during the antebellum era on the Fort Hill property on what now is the Clemson University campus.
There will be a drop-in at the archaeological site where they are digging from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday, June 19, to commemorate Juneteenth, which marks the emancipation of the last remaining enslaved people in the United States. National observances include explorations and celebrations of African-American history and heritage.
History in plain sight
The historic Fort Hill property, located in the core of Clemson’s campus, was home to South Carolina statesman John C. Calhoun and later, the university’s namesake, Thomas Green Clemson. While their time on the property is well-recorded, the lives of enslaved African-Americans are largely undocumented.
The Clemson board of trustees in 2016 adopted the recommendations of its task force on the history of Clemson, including that the complete history of the university is told.
David Markus, an archaeologist and visiting lecturer in the department of sociology, anthropology and criminal justice, provided training in archeological excavation and analysis methods to a dozen students enrolled in his six-week summer course in anthropology. They have carefully moved dirt in areas between Fort Hill and nearby residence halls where a kitchen once stood in the house. Historians believe domestic slave quarters and other outbuildings existed in the space.
“We hope to understand more about the daily lives of people who were enslaved at Fort Hill — how they lived and worked — and interpret their stories in a respectful way,” Markus said. “The university has made a commitment to tell its history more completely, and we hope our work will help support that effort.”
First archeological field school at Clemson
This is the first time the university offered a campus field school. Will Hiott is the director of historic properties at Clemson. He said historical archeology can begin a new conduit to the important task of reinterpreting Fort Hill by relocating long-lost plantation buildings where African-Americans once toiled.
“The long-range plans would be to bring that hidden history back to plain sight as the foundations of the kitchen yard, spin house-weave room, laundry — along with the smoke house and cook’s residence — are excavated,” Hiott said. “Unfortunately, not everything can be unearthed in one summer session, but we see this as a first step in seeking foundations, artifacts and material culture.”
Call my name: African-Americans in early Clemson University history
Rhondda Thomas teaches African-American literature in the department of English. She began the tedious task of researching Clemson’s untold history shortly after she started working at the university more than 10 years ago. Thomas is posting her findings online under her Call My Name: African Americans in Early Clemson University History project.
“I hope the archeological excavation can become a long-term, collaborative, town-gown endeavor that enables Clemson University to work alongside descendants and members of local communities to gain important insights into the lives and labors of enslaved persons on the Fort Hill Plantation,” Thomas said.
Students taking the Field Studies in Archaeology course say they are gaining valuable experience and learning more about the people who helped build Clemson University.
“We found ceramic and glass sherds, a lot of brick and a ton of coal,” said Grace Lockett, an anthropology major. “It has been really exciting because it’s proof of human activity, which showcases there really was something happening here.”
“I’m very interested in historical archeology right now and to be able to do something like this on campus that hasn’t been done and build that history for a community that I’m also a part of is a huge factor for me,” said Mackenzie Mulkey, also an anthropology major. “It’s very surreal to me to be able to hold history in your hand. They’re (enslaved persons) human and they deserve to have their history documented just as everyone else.”
Students said working at the site is like making history every day.
It’s a feeling anthropology professor Melissa Vogel hopes more students experience.
“We are blessed to have a wealth of archaeological resources on our campus,” Vogel said.
Before Markus arrived, Vogel was the only archaeologist at Clemson and she conducted her research in South America.
“We are really excited to have professor Markus and offer this brand new opportunity for our students,” Vogel said.
The next phase of the archaeology field school at Fort Hill is a two-week analysis course taught by Markus this summer. Students and faculty will document the material found and produce a report that will be shared publicly at a later date.
The rain date for the Juneteenth drop-in at the site is June 20.