When Chip Helms turned over a patch of earth and found pieces of pottery and artifacts as a 14 year old in the mid 1970’s he had no idea that his discovery would inspire two decades of archaeological investigation at the Greet Pee Dee River Heritage Preserve in Darlington County.
The Johannes Kolb Archaeology and Education Project held their final Field Day on Saturday, March 12, 2016, marking the end of the project that has trained 15 student to professional archaeologists, recovered over 1.5 million artifacts, over 6,000 visitors, and excavating and curating samples that have yielded a greater knowledge of who lived at the site from Paleoindian period 12,000 – 8,000 BC to the Williamson Era in the 1800’s.
Newspapers are limited by space, so the story in the print edition limited me to certain photographs and quotes. The following is a long read, but the information shared on my visit to the Kolb site was so fascinating it seems a shame to not expand. The time I spent at the site seemed to go by in minutes, not hours; it was truly like going back in time.
On the Monday after the end of the 20th and final Johannes Kolb field season, Dr. Chip Helms called the News and Press while driving. The following is from my telephone conversation with him:
“They give me credit for recording that site, but the person who really deserves the credit is Eugene Waddell,” said Helms. “He was the Director of the Florence Museum at the time, and I had some artifacts including ones from the Kolb site, and I went in to see him. I didn’t know who he was, I just decided to swing into the museum to see if someone could make sense of it to me, and he said you are not leaving here until you have this site recorded and send the information into Columbia. Had I not gone in to see him that day the site would have never been recorded.”
“The quality of the site and the information has far exceeded anyone’s expectations. There has never really been any significant in depth archaeology off this sort in the Pee Dee Region. We knew what was in NC and south of us, but no one had done that kind of work here. So it’s really writing the chapter on archaeology in the Pee Dee area.”
“They have trained so many students and archaeologists from South Carolina and surrounding states have worked on that site, and specialists from surrounding states – specialists analyzing botanical remains, and food remains, its been a multi disciplinary project. One of the great things for me from watching a lot of these people come in as college students and they are now 15 years later into a post graduate degree some in archeology, some in others specialties and they still come back every year. There is such a sense of community and friendship among all these people. Many of whom have worked there from every single year of the season for 20 years. It’s just been a great thing.”
Helms wishes to thank Campbell Coxe and Kirk Dunlap for housing the teams for the 20 years, and for their support of the project.
“I also want to credit Campbell Coxe and Kirk Dunlap, they housed these crews for 20 years now and they have really been supportive of this project and have really made everyone comfortable and gave them a great place to look forward to coming back to every year. So they deserve a lot of credit.”
“When I had dinner with the crew on Saturday night, I told them if this has taught you nothing else, I hope that it’s taught you just how quickly 20 years will pass. Just in a heartbeat it flies by. So, enjoy your life and make the best of your time.”
If you’ve been to the Kolb site before, you will know what I mean when I say…”Oh my gosh that road!” Not only is the road narrow, it’s bumpy. Really, really bumpy. And at one point, the cypress trees emerging from the water on both sides of your vehicle on that narrow road is pretty darn eerie…but amazing. At that point, I started lamenting the fact that I’d bought a tiny Chevy Spark instead of a Suburu Outback.
When I finally got the site, several cars and trucks were parked (of course, I saw a Suburu Outback), and a DNR fella hopped out of his truck to welcome me and the couple who arrived ahead of time. While we waited for the next shuttle bus, he shared his connection to the site.
Brian Long, from Irmo S.C.:
“I came here for the first time in 2004-2005. I help to manage the Cultural Heritage Preserves for the Dept of Natural Resources (DNR) and I have a degree in Biology and had very little cultural archaeological experience when I started. Back then, the Dept. of Archaeology DNR hired me and this was my training for my job. I learned all about archaeology starting in a hole, and I was digging units with these professional archaeologists as my training to protect archaeology sites. Chris Judge, and Carl Steen, and Shawn Taylor especially those three have been here through it all. They have done a lot, seen a lot, and know a lot.”
I asked if this job has affected how he perceives places, wondering what lies beneath.
“There are a lot of people walking along with a lot of stuff under their feet, and they have no idea. I knew there was a lot, but I had no idea how much there was. DNR has a lot of properties with a lot of protected cultural resources all over the state. We are lucky we were just able to hire two new archeologists and a new natural resource technician so our staff is growing, and we are better able to protect and find out what we do have.”
I asked about the native animals to this site.
“DNR are hunting wild hogs in here today. They are an invasive species, they are just horrible. Johnny Stowe manages this property and knows more about what is here, I don’t.”
Brian told me that I was in luck, the guy driving the shuttle bus would give me a lot of great information.
Marilyn and George Smith, from Darlington, waited for the shuttle with me, and said they were sad this was the last Field Day. “We’ve been 8 or 9 times,” said George. “There has been a couple of times the weather hasn’t real good. And sometimes, a lot of rain”
I asked what their favorite thing about visiting was for them. Marilyn said, “Just the people, they are really dedicated and that is nice.” George added,”It’s a good excuse to get outside.”
Shawn Taylor shared his story as he drove a shuttle bus for visitors.
“I was an undergraduate at USC when Chris Judge who was an archeologist for DNR In 1996 when I started. I met him and Chip Helms. Chip expressed interest in starting an archeologist site on a site he had identified in the mid 70’s when he was a teenager so Chris talked to a friend named Carl Steen with Diachronic Research Station and they started the project with Chip’s encouragement and assistance. And Chips family, Mary Ellen, his sister and Doc, her husband, put us up and fed us and that’s how it all got started. Chris left the DNR in 2006 and I got his job, By then I was in graduate school so I am the Chief Archaeologist for DNR and I have two others, Brian Long is our Preserve Manager for our Cultural Heritage Centers and Meg Gilliard is S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Heritage Trust archaeologist.”
As Taylor drove the shuttle, a cargo van, over the bumpy trail to the site, one realizes how far back into the preserve this area is – and again, the road is very narrow.
“This is the 20th year of this project, and we’ve done a lot and learned a lot. We’ve dug about 10% of the site, a lot of students have matured at the site and a lot of colleagues of mine we were in school together and just like me, starting here together, we went on to graduate school and are professionals in the field and a lot of those guys are down here today. Its been really nice to see people from the community Chip’s niece, Sarah Ashley, when we started she was a little girl and now she is married and an architect in Greenville, so it’s kind of sad to contemplate not being back here but we’ll do another project somewhere else. We’ve got everybody’s names and contacts, we’ll set a date and an invitation and I’m sure we’ll get a lot of people to come see the new place.”
Taylor continued: “We found some really nice prehistoric artifacts this week, stone tools anywhere from 10,000 to 5,000 years old, and some Indian pottery, features that belonged to the Johannes Kolb family who lived here in the middle 18th century, features and artifacts that belonged to the slaves that were here in the 19th century, there was a saw mill set up here in the 20th century we’ve gotten artifacts from that. We’ve collected in past years, so we got a better sample. Really what we were trying to do this time is to chase Features; features are holes that people dig in the ground, when we dig a hole and set up a post, the post rots away and leaves an organic stain in the ground. We come back and we take topsoil off and we see that stain. We are interested in that kind of stuff because it tells us what the structures are the artifacts will give us a general idea of where the structure is because they concentrate. Imagine your house rotting or burning down, or your stuff will stay relatively close to where it was left. So we wanted to know. In past years we’ve opened large areas where we were trying to see those post hole patterns and other features that are in the ground, to say definitively yes, there was a structure here. This is how big it was. This is what we were doing this time.”
I asked him, what memories stand out? Taylor pulled the van up to the site for the visitors to exit, and more to leave for their cars at the entrance. He looked over, and smiled at a young man getting his photograph taken with a small child.
“That fella right here, when he was 16 his mom came and talked to Chris for an hour and said can he stay, and before he thought a lot about it he could think again, she opened the trunk and handed us a suitcase he stayed with us a week and worked as a archeologist and he has a degree in anthropology and worked with us for 10 years or so and then now he’s married with a little guy. There are a lot of cool memories here.”
After getting out of the van, visitors are asked to sign in. In years past, there have been between 300 – 400 visitors; by the time I arrived, in the afternoon, the total had been a little over 100.
Chris Judge, Instructor of Anthropology and Native American Studies at University of South Carolina Lancaster and co-Director of the project, the project is far from over.
“For me, it’s not the end of the project. I’ve got 5 – 8 years of lab analysis, with technical reports to produce, so to me, we are moving away from the field but the project is not over” said Judge. “One year from today we’ll open an exhibit on the prehistoric component here at the Native American Studies Center at USC Lancaster so we’ll pick up this Public Day and take it there. he said. “The fieldwork is exciting; I like to say it’s kind of sexy. Lab is not as interesting. But I need to build awareness and raise public and private funds for the lab work just like we have for the fieldwork, so it’s a bit of a challenge. But its not over, we still have a lot of work. We’ve learned a lot, but a lot is in the lab where it comes together. We’ve had tons of expertise that has come in. we have a fellow up here that is looking in the deposits from 12,000 years ago for evidence of a comet that hit north America and put things into the atmosphere and may have killed people off, so he’s collecting samples for that. We are doing ground penetrating radar up here trying to map 19, 20,000 years so we have all these studies and different kind of people we’ve got to put it together in to one narrative and report and synthesize everything and bring it all together. So for me, it’s not over. The exciting part is in the trench grunt work.”
The week had been a successful one.
“We’ve going back to some areas where we found some artifacts from the cellars of the slave occupation ear where we have gone back to dig and we found a cufflink and an 18th century metal flat that is of the Kolb era and we don’t find a lot from that era. They are German pioneers, far from markets, where they can get stuff. They don’t have a lot, and they don’t lose a lot. Johannes and Sarah Kolb had nine children living up here as pioneers in the middle of nowhere. They pegged their house together, there are not nails, and so they are materially obscure. The folks that were living here in the enslavement days had access to market goods, so there was a store on Black Creek, so there is more of them living up here that masks our ability to see. So, finding something from the Johannes Kolb era particularly has been pretty great.”
Each visitor to Field Day received a special presentation and overview of the history by Tariq Ghaffar. (I hope to find a way to share the recording of his presentation as an audio file.)
“I am a DNR archeologist, I’ve been on this project since day one. Most of the original crew is still out here, Emily, Carl and Chris. We are very attached to this site. There might be some tears shed tonight at the field house.”
I had emailed Meg Gilliard, DNR archaeologist based on the Statehouse grounds in Columbia, S.C., several times and was happy to finally meet her. She was toting a camera, and was a very busy lady moving from site to site. I regret now that I didn’t take her photo, but if you look into my shots she is often there, camera in hand, wearing a white shirt and a ball cap.
Meg Gilliard: “I started coming to Kolb as a student, and I transitioned into being a professional archaeologist volunteering, and two years ago became employed by DNR. This is where I got my start, it’s where so many archaeologists got their start in the field of archaeology. It’s bittersweet, but there will be future projects.”
I asked her who I should talk to about exciting items found, and she said, “Talk to the archaeologists over to the far left, Elizabeth Farkas and Brandy Joy – they found the cufflink. The feature over in the blue excavated a comb- if you head over now, you can catch it before they bag and box it up.”
Dawn Reed: “This was a cellar, basically a pit dug under a house” she said. “A lot of debris falls through the floorboards and ends up in there, so a lot of bone was found in there, brick, mortar, that sort of thing. Things burn down and we find the feature in the soil, and we know that this was a small structure, so we know to look those types of things, the contexts of what is found beneath and around the outside of a place. They are rich little time capsule for us.”
I asked how they knew to dig there?
“This was done three years ago, they found this feature,” said Reed. “They quit working on it, so we made it a 1 x 2 to catch this.”
About that comb….
I made the man that found the comb hop back into the feature to hold the comb up for me.
I’m a jerk with a camera.
But, anyway, it was the find of the day, so he did it. So, thank you to Chris Young for being such a good sport!
As I took photos, i overheard many people discussing the comb. Was it made of bone? Ivory? It’s so fine, was it for lice? Should they check for evidence of lice? How old is it? I can’t wait to find out what it actually is, and how old it is.
Chris was kind enough to show me some more finds:
Chris Young, who found the rare comb, shows more wares found beneath a cellar. “That’s an oyster; we are so far inland, how did that get here? That’s the million dollar question. Pipe stems, kaolin clay pipe stems from 1800- 1700’s, nails of various sizes- we know because they are square. An old fish hook with the barb still on it. A piece of wine bottle glass.”
While I was there, volunteers found what looked like a bread knife.
From there, I wandered around, lost in the beauty of the site, watching little ones playing in the dirt and reveling in the fact that no one cared if they got dirty. In fact, you are supposed to get dirty!
The three demonstrators were attracting children in droves, demonstrating African American lifeways, leatherworking, and reenactors in addition to demonstrations by three favorites:
Fuz Sanderson: he kept children spell bound during his day long presentation focused on the interpretation of the prehistoric use of natural resources, specifically those items that do not survive the archaeological record. Demonstration includes; friction fire materials, pitch sticks, soapstone materials and other natural resources.
Keith Grenoble: a potter from Virginia, he demonstrated prehistoric pottery manufacture, firing and use in cooking. He produces replicas of ancient pots and their use. while I was there, he was cooking some fish that had been caught in a nearby pond. “This is my passion, pottery, I made everything here, in the style of the Native American technique.”
Scott Jones: General demonstration of primitive technologies, focusing on interpretation of archaeological record, activities include: Flint knapping, Stone axes, Woodworking, Stone tool hafting and the Atlatl spear thrower.
Terry James: demonstrating African American lifeways, Terry is a nearby native of Mars Bluff. He showed collections of slave and restoration era tools and wares used by the people of the area on the Kolb site that lived in slave encampments and later as free men and women. He is also a Civil War reenactor, “I really love history,” said Terry. “It’s important for us to know how hard everyone worked for every meal they had. Our ancestors worked all day long taking care of their tools and repairing them, looking and preparing and storing food, and keeping their homes secure. We have it so easy today, in comparison.”
The South Carolina Archaeology Public Outreach Division (SCAPOD) provided kids’ activities including pottery re-fit and sand stratigraphy.
Before I left, I tried to get Dr. Chip Helms to share some words – instead, he called the News and Press on Monday. In the middle of press day, no less! But, I forgive him, because he told me to talk to Stuart Greeter. And that is the perfect way to end this long, long tale… because of the hard work of people like Stuart Greeter, and for people like Chip Helms who know who to talk to you when you find something special, such as this site, we can all enjoy the natural resources of this beautiful state of South Carolina.
Stuart Greeter: “My main job with the Dept of Natural Resources under the Heritage Trust program was acquisition of properties. We I worked for the Heritage Trust advisory board which is still there today and at one point, we had thanks to Senator Ravenel, the Heritage Trust fund got a certain percentage of the sales tax to put in this fund to put in properties that were significant to this state. We ranked properties according to natural significance that is biology, plants and animals, so we focused in on areas that had endangered species in the state that species that may become extinct in the near future if we don’t protect habitat for them today. We had cultural areas people on the board also, and it was actually a very new development for them they wanted to see some important cultural sites protected and they devised a system to rank cultural sites, archaeological sites, and prior to that the idea has been more or less to if there is a significant archaeological site you dig it up, get the information and leave. And it’s done, its gone. They felt that there were highly significant areas of the state where you should extract some information today but bank the majority of the site where future generations with methods to glean information from the ground improves and resources are still there to develop from. That is what they are dong here. They are digging up a small part of it and leaving most of it essentially forever.”
“But I shouldn’t brag, but I can’t help it. During when I worked for that program, I probably acquired 150 different pieces of property and probably established an additional 50 heritage sites during that period so I would encourage you to go to the DNR website and look up the list of heritage preserves there is about 70, and as I said, they are all significant for special reasons so you can go find the different preserves and you will find some very unique things there. I think they are all beautiful and all well worth visiting, and they are all properties we want to protect forever and they only come, in my opinion, more valuable over time. Take a look at that.”
Take his word for it: www.dnr.sc.gov
Work at the Kolb Site has been made possible by the generous contributions of private parties, grants, volunteer workers, and the communities of Mechanicsville and Society Hill, South Carolina.
To make a donation to the Kolb site, e-mail Diachronic@aol.com, or send a check to made payable to DRF- Kolb Site, P.O. Box 50394, Columbia S.C. 29250. Learn more about the site at: http://38da75.com. To see more photos, please see below. Mobile users, please click link to see photos: Johannes Kolb Site 20th and Final Field Season