Digging into the past at old Cherokee site in Oconee County

By David Williams
Anderson, South Carolina (AP) 4-08

It’s no secret that long before European explorers arrived, the Cherokees were living in what is today Oconee County.

Where the county’s first inhabitants lived and how they lived, however, is a mystery Chris Clement will try to unravel in the coming months.

Clement, principal investigator with the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, spent a week in March in a small, open field near Oconee Station State Historic Site.

“It’s a systematic process,” Clement said of peeling through layers of dirt to reveal the past. “Our main objective is to understand the people and how the artifacts relate to how they lived.”

Luther Lyle, a teacher and chairman of the Oconee County Arts and Historical Society, was able to secure some funds to help finance the weeklong dig on private property.

Among the findings is a small bowl that fits into a man’s hand. The artifact is in excellent condition.

“It’s the only complete bowl found in the county,” Lyle said.

The site, which is nestled between surrounding hills, was divided into 10-meter squares. Several test pits, each 1-meter square, were opened. The earth was removed laboriously, about 1 centimeter at a time.

“It is like placing a piece of graph paper over the entire site, and then mapping and cataloging each find,” Clement said.

Most of the finds during Clement’s work were pieces of pottery, each marked with what he called a “complicated stamp.” The design on the pieces will tell Clement a lot about the people who lived in the field and used those objects.

Lyle called the site ideal, partly because of the property owner’s willingness to allow archaeological research.

“It’s not under water, it hasn’t been bulldozed, it’s not on public land or in a state park or national forest,” Lyle said. “A lot of red tape has been eliminated.”

Clement will take the pottery pieces back to his laboratory at the University of South Carolina for examination and might return in the fall for a larger-scale exploration of the site.

Although Clement said such sites are not uncommon, there is a great deal of information that can be learned from such a site.

One of the keys to any dig site is finding where posts were put in the ground, Clement said.

“When people occupy a place, they build things,” he said. ‘They put up posts.”

Nearby, Oconee Station State Historic Site features one of the first European outposts in the county, built sometime around 1792 to house post-Revolutionary War militia who sent out early warnings of attack by Creek or Cherokee Indians.

The site also served as a trading post and William Richards, who bought the property from Gen. Andrew Pickens, lived at the site until his death. In 1805, he completed a two-story brick house next to the stone military station. Both buildings are open to the public.

In the search for artifacts, archaeologists have been joined by several volunteers to help determine the location of at least a half-dozen Native American towns and camps.

Jeannie Barnwell of Tamassee, who wears jewelry made of arrowheads around her neck, said she volunteered because she is in awe of the Cherokee.

“I have a real appreciation for their culture and how they lived,” Barnwell said.

Teri Bynum of Mountain Rest was one of 16 volunteers who joined the recent probe along Oconee and Alexander creeks.

Bynum, a member of the Cherokee’s Bear Clan based in the Upstate, was accompanied by her son, Caleb, whose Indian name is “War Eagle.” A Walhalla Middle School student, Caleb said he likes digging in the dirt and finding things that might have belonged to his ancestors.

Teresa Crunkleton, who lives near the dig site, on Oconee Station Road, also volunteered to help the archaeologists.

“We find things all the time,” Crunkleton said. “Working in the garden, plowing or after a heavy rain, we’ve found arrowheads, musket balls and pipe stems on our property.”

By the end of the year, more could be known about the first people who farmed, hunted and looked up at the falling rain in Oconee County.