By Caroline Timmons, 2023 SCDNR Archaeology Intern
Throughout my six weeks working with the SCDNR Archaeology team I learned many valuable things about the field of Archaeology but none more important than the value of the culture that is discovered through an artifact. Oftentimes when people think of archaeology they tend to think of the artifacts themselves and not the culture attached to them that makes them so valuable. Before my internship if you had asked me “What makes the artifacts so valuable?” I may have given a vague answer about how it was from a long time ago and it can be used to determine how people used to live and its value would be in the fact that it was from the past but not necessarily anything more than that. This may be half right, but I am missing a huge part of what makes artifacts so valuable, the place they were found in. This is referred to as the context of an artifact and the context determines everything. The context of an artifact is where it was found, when it was found, what other artifacts are around it and other details that seem insignificant but hold the key to discovering valuable information about the artifact and its origin.
The second that an artifact is taken from the ground without the proper research it loses all value to archaeology. Although this might still have cultural significance there is very little to be learned from it when it’s removed from where it was found. I learned this firsthand when we visited a site along the Wateree River. Although we were able to discover many artifacts such as glass, ceramic sherds and nails, these on their own would not be able to tell us much. Where these artifacts are located in relation to each other and where they are located based on where we theorize certain buildings stood are both important questions to ask. Without these questions the artifacts would be relatively useless. By simply taking the proper steps to discover as much as possible about a site there are significant cultural discoveries that can be made. A feature where slave cabins used to stand and a site where Native Americans used to live are both examples of things that archaeologists discover all around South Carolina and can be used for research about where certain people and events lived and took place. Artifacts from these sites are what allows archaeologists to determine what would have stood there hundreds, maybe thousands, of years ago.
For example, pottery sherds have different styles based on who made them and when they were made. This can help date a site and determine what might have stood there. These artifacts are important, not because of what they are, but because of what they can tell us about the past. These types of discoveries are not only significant because of the artifacts found but because of the culture that it is demonstrating. For the descendants of these people these discoveries are beyond valuable as it is a physical link to their past and their culture. The linking of people to their culture and to their past is what makes archaeology such a valuable field. People often don’t know much about their own history and culture but being able to go to a museum and see a display about their ancestors and culture allows people to connect to their past in a way that they didn’t think was possible.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on South Carolina Wild are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect official policies, positions, or endorsements of activity or products by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.