About 40 years ago, University of Florida graduate student Nicholas Honerkamp led the last major archaeological dig at Fort Frederica National Monument.
In May Professor Nicholas Honerkamp will be back to take up where he left off, and the public is invited to get its hands dirty with him and his team of archaeologists.
Honerkamp will be on the ground — and sometimes in the ground — at the 18th century British fortified settlement May 31 to June 6 with a team from the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, where he is a professor of anthropology. Joining them will be archaeologists from the National Park Service’s Southeast Archeological Center, said Michael Seibert, the national monument’s on-site archaeologist.
There will also be an opportunity for children in a four-day day camp in which those ages 9-12 can learn about archaeology and team with archaeologists to assist at the dig sites.
There have been some digs in the past 40 years, Seibert said, but mostly compliance digs to check for artifacts before underground utility work and other projects that disturbed the grounds.
“This will be the first major (discovery) dig,’’ since Honerkamp worked in the “south ward” among the ruins of the fortified town between 1978 and 1980, Seibert said.
The upcoming work is based on geophysical testing of the grounds that included ground penetrating radar and other technology. Magnetometers provided signature images of any objects that have more magnetism than the normal background levels.
Seibert said that would include all metal objects, which are naturally magnetic, and others that are magnetized over time.
“Fireplaces, because they’ve been burned over and over again, will be magnetic,’’ Seibert said.
Seibert says he has identified about 30 sites that warrant investigation. The archaeologists will work on possibly 10 this season.
The largest magnetic signature is a 20-foot by 30-foot rectangle.
“We don’t know what it is. It doesn’t line up with anything. It’s weird,’’ he said.
There is a possibility that some of the objects are relatively modern because there were homesites on the grounds until the 1940s, but Seibert hopes the archaeologists will find something that predates even the British soldiers and settlers who were on the grounds between 1736 and 1758.
“We know the Spanish were here before the English. It would be cool to find some things (from) before Fort Frederica,’’ he said.
Among the modern possibilities is a big object that’s beside a spot where a house stood in 1938.
“It could be their cistern’’ where the residents stored rain water, Seibert said. “It could be a burn pile.”
Honerkamp’s field school of archaeologists and those from the Southeast Archeological Center won’t complete the work this year, but Seibert said he is hopeful they find enough to continue the program.
“If this goes well, we’ll be out here several years doing this work,’’ he said.
Seibert knows there are things to be found, having done a sort of feasibility test excavation last summer with the assistance of his parents, Nancy and John Seibert, and his nephew, Christopher Seibert, who were visiting. He called the dig “ground-truthing of an anomaly.” Working in July, they found a line of brick and a clay floor and would have done more but for the weather.
“We cleaned up and monsoon season hit and turned it into a bathtub,’’ he said.
That’s the sort of thing that can happen on archaeological digs because field schools are typically in the summer.
In grading Honerkamp’s class, one university student wrote this: “If you don’t like the heat, don’t go digging in the Deep South in summer. Oh, and you should be aware there are insects, snakes and gators involved. If undeterred you will love this in depth experience with a seasoned anthropologist.”
Snakes and alligators are very unlikely at this summer’s digs, but heat and insects are a near certainty, as Seibert’s family endured last summer, but they weren’t the only ones. There were home-school groups on the ground every day helping screen what he shoveled from the hole.
Fort Frederica Site Manager Steve Theus said the upcoming exploration and teaching projects began nearly five years ago with a funding request. Friends of Fort Frederica are sponsoring the camp for youth in June as well as a trial run for eighth-grade students, he said.
There have been classroom introductions to archaeology in the past and student field trips to the fort are frequent, but this summer’s camp is a new opportunity, Theus said.
“We can expose kids to doing archaeology in the field,’’ he said.
That is made possible, Theus said, because of the sponsorship of the recently formed Friends of Fort Frederica.
Founding member Valerie Hepburn said the organization has grown dramatically since the first of the year and now has 100 members.
“People have been enthusiastic. We raised a little money, and we asked, ‘What’s the best first thing we can do?’’’ Hepburn said.
Seibert’s suggestion of the youth camp appears to be the best possible use of money, she said.
“There are so many dig opportunities out there,’’ she said.
The friends organization is also a great opportunity for the public to join and support “this absolute gem we have in our community’’ in Fort Frederica, Hepburn said.
The camp will be run from 9:30 a.m. until 3 p.m., June 4-7, and will be directed by Helen Provenzano, a Glynn County teacher who formerly taught archaeology classes and labs in a partnership between Fort Frederica and nearby Oglethorpe Point Elementary School.
The camp fee is $100 per child and includes a T-shirt, lunch all four days and a snack. There is a limit of 20 campers.
Registration must be completed by May 1 and may be made through FortFredericaFriends.org. The website is also the best way to learn about or to support or join Friends of Fort Frederica.
Adults may assist in the dig from May 31 through June 6 from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. They must reserve a spot, however, by calling Seibert at 912-638-3639 or by email at Michael_Seibert@nps.gov.
Seibert said finding even a piece of broken pottery can be rewarding, given how long its been in the ground.
“You can tell a kid, ‘You’re the first person to touch that in 200 years,’” he said.