Archaeological sites should be viewed in the same context as endangered species, according to a state archaeologist charged with protecting South Carolina’s most imperiled cultural areas.
"An archaeological site is very similar to an endangered species," said Sean Taylor, archaeologist for the Heritage Trust program of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR). "Actually, these areas are even more critically endangered than plants and animals, because we cannot regenerate archaeological sites—once destroyed, they are lost forever."
The Heritage Trust program, now part of DNR’s Habitat Protection Section, was established in 1976 to preserve important natural and cultural aspects of South Carolina. Heritage Trust seeks to acquire only the most important sites and has protected almost 83,000 acres on 70 state heritage preserves found throughout South Carolina. There are now 15 cultural preserves, protecting 44 archaeological sites.
With the help of the state’s archaeological community, archaeologists Steve Smith, James Errante and Chris Judge conducted a one-year statewide assessment that identified 100 of the most important and critically endangered archaeological sites in South Carolina. This systematic approach to archaeological protection was the first of its kind, according to Taylor, and has since been used as a model for other states to follow.
"Land is expensive," Taylor said, "and with limited funds, we have to make each dollar go much farther." Sometimes, Taylor said, Heritage Trust can overlap cultural and natural resources protection, such as the case of shell rings on the coast. A critically imperiled type of archaeological site, shell rings are threatened both by coastal erosion and by beach development. Dating from 3,000 to 5,000 years ago, shell rings also provide habitat for endangered plants such as the tiny-leaved buckthorn that can only grow in the alkaline soil created by the presence of oyster shells discarded by Native Americans.
"Shell rings provide environmental time capsules," Taylor said, "because the shell-enhanced soil preserves many animal bones and plant parts that are an index of what existed along the coast between 3,000 and 5,000 years ago. We can look at the distribution and occurrence of both rare and game species then and now, and compare the effects of human development on the environment."
Heritage Trust is taking a landscape approach to protection of archaeological resources, Taylor said, acquiring representative samples of the best available sites. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the protection of Civil War batteries. The DNR has now protected, through acquisition or conservation easement, eight Civil War batteries, including Fort Lamar, the site of the strategically important Battle of Secessionville.
"We have a nice representative sample of the hundreds of earthworks built during the Civil War," Taylor said. "These earthworks were erected initially to protect the ports from Northern invasion, and once Hilton Head had been taken, they were important to the protection of Charleston and the railway between Columbia, Charleston and Savannah."
For more information on protecting archaeological resources in South Carolina, write Heritage Trust-Archaeology, DNR, PO Box 167, Columbia, SC 29202.
DNR protects and manages South Carolina’s natural resources by making wise and balanced decisions for the benefit of the state’s natural resources and its people.