Lost & Found: DIHS ‘Artifact Show & Tell’ offers insight into relics of the past
Wed, 11/03/2021 - 9:03am admin
It’s the who, what and when that intrigues Julie Hessenthaler the most about the ancient treasures she finds along Daniel Island’s Wando River coastline. The tiny pieces of pottery she has discovered nestled in the sand and marsh grasses often serve up countless questions instead of answers.
Whose hands last touched the plate or teacup? What type of meal or beverage did it hold? When was it used?
Fortunately for Hessenthaler, and several other island residents who have also collected interesting finds over the years, the Daniel Island Historical Society (DIHS) hosted an “Artifact Show & Tell” on Oct. 19 at Church of the Holy Cross. More than 40 people turned out for the event, including Hessenthaler. Serving as guest speaker
for the program was Dr. Eric Poplin, senior archaeologist and vice president for Brockington & Associates, an industry leader in cultural resources management. Poplin’s colleagues Jeff Sherard, an analytical specialist, and Grant Sherwood, lab technician, assisted in the identification of artifacts.
“It was honestly really, really cool,” said Hessenthaler, who brought dozens of pieces from her own collection to show them. “I wasn’t sure what to expect, being I had never gone to anything like that before… to have them verify the things that you’re thinking, or had no idea about, was really cool.”
Hessenthaler moved to the island in 2014 but didn’t begin actively collecting artifacts along the shoreline until the COVID-19 pandemic began. She learned from Poplin and his team that many of her pieces, called pottery sherds, date back to the 18th and 19th centuries. But one piece in particular caught Poplin’s eye.
“I asked them what the oldest pieces were that I had and he instantly picked up a Native American piece and said it could easily be 1,000 years old!” she said. “That to me is just overwhelming… I don’t even know how to form words about it because it’s so mind blowing.”
Poplin and his fellow Brockington team members were impressed with some of the items brought in by residents.
“It was really the whole material culture of the Colonial period,” said Sherard, who holds a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology from the University of Alabama and has more than 20 years of archaeological field and laboratory experience.
Among the items displayed were pottery pieces categorized as North Devon, Staffordshire, Westerwald, and salt-glazed stoneware. The team also noted sherds with shell edges, colorful hand-painted designs, and transfer prints. One young attendee brought pieces of karolin pipes that he had found on the island, most likely dating back to the 1800s.
“That’s generally what you see when we go out and do these artifact ID days, because of Charleston and its history, you’ll see the whole gamut,” Sherard added.
Many of those gathered wondered why these pieces tend to turn up so frequently along shorelines.
“These are sites that are on the water line and they are eroding out,” explained Sherard, adding that oftentimes broken pottery and other discards were simply buried in refuse pits on a residential property. “… It’s even in downtown Charleston. I think it’s just that we’ve had this long sustained European presence here. Not only that, but just the wealth…it allowed them to have a lot more, and it’s all very concentrated right along the harbor area.”
For the DIHS program, Poplin also shared information with the group about Brockington’s ongoing study of the time capsule recently unearthed at the former Calhoun monument downtown, and the firm’s work in excavating what is believed to be the former homesite of Robert Daniell, Daniel Island’s namesake, on the Wando River coastline in 2020.
Jessica Knuff, president of DIHS, praised Poplin and his colleagues for enlightening the group’s audience.
“We have such a rich history here on the island,” Knuff said. “And the paths we walk daily hold clues to the past…The Artifact Show and Tell was a great opportunity to bring in locally discovered artifacts for expert review. I really loved the interactive aspect of the event. It was amazing to see all the items residents had collected.”
Both Poplin and Sherard acknowledged the importance of artifact discoveries in the work they do, as they study the past to better understand the people who came before us.
“That’s the connection to the people that you’re trying to get to,” said Poplin, who earned a Ph.D. from the University of Calgary. “The stuff they leave behind. Artifacts are technically not just the physical things we see here today. It’s everything we see in the ground that someone created. The refuse pits – those are artifacts. We call them features, to distinguish them between things we bring back or touch. It’s the relationships between the artifacts as you find them that allows you to interpret behavior.”
“I think of myself as an anthropologist,” Sherard added. “…The method I use is archaeology. But we’re all looking at behaviors and how those behaviors reinforce, dictate, control and build culture…We don’t just use archaeology, we use history, we use ethno-historic sources, we use all of this to give us as full a picture as we can.”
When asked what artifact made the biggest impression in all of his local discoveries, Poplin cited a find dating back to the 1600s from the former home of Thomas Lynch in what is now the RiverTowne subdivision off Highway 41.
“A needle case,” Poplin added. “That’s the one that I always say is the most intriguing artifact I have found here. Maybe ever. It’s a little silver needle case and it was monogrammed with the letters S and L on top of it.”
Poplin believes the case, which held brass pins and iron needles, likely belonged to either Lynch’s wife, Sabina, or daughter, Sarah.
“It’s the closest that you come to someone,” Poplin noted. “That doesn’t happen very often.”
It is discoveries like this that keep both Poplin and Sherard in awe of the history that surrounds us.
“It makes me humble, quite honestly,” Sherard said. “Particularly with certain classes of artifacts, you realize what they represent, and who made them, and how they were using them… To me, there is this other level. It’s about this human experience and it’s all shared. If it weren’t for these people, we wouldn’t be here.