Michael Seibert stepped into a knee-deep pit on the grounds of Fort Frederica National Monument last week as if he were dropping in on old neighbors.
Make that really old neighbors. The likes of Maj. William Horton and Richard Oldner have not been seen around these parts for nearly 300 years. Nonetheless, Seibert spoke of the two 18th century settlers with a familiarity and immediacy that suggested they were right here among us on this beautiful June day in 2018.
With Seibert serving as interpreter, I was granted an introduction of sorts. The latest neighborhood gossip concerning these two unfolded on the close-shaved walls of this rectangular pit, written in the language of archaeology. It was a head-scratcher for Seibert, the onsite archaeologist at Fort Frederica, a British settlement in Colonial Georgia beginning in 1736.
The fort at one time was home to a military outpost and township, consisting of some 1,000 soldiers and colonists in its heyday. Archaeological digs at the site go back to the 1940s, providing us with a solid understanding of the township’s layout and the people who occupied it.
Which brought us back to the mystery Seibert puzzled over last week while standing in that hole in the ground. The thing was, no one has ever said anything about a house on this particular plot, he said.
Its first owner was Oldner, a planter and a boatsman.
“In ‘38, he was asked by (Gen. James) Oglethorpe to teach soldiers the art of cultivation,” Seibert said, referring to 1738. “He got paid for it. But after ‘39, Oldner disappears from the records.”
Standing in the pit with the sun shining down from cloudless skies, Seibert took a glance at the smooth side of the pit’s wall. It was layered in earthen shades of pale sand, red clay and beige compost. Seibert picked up the story where he left off.
“Then along comes Horton,” he said.
Horton, of course, was Gen. Oglethorpe’s second in command at Fort Frederica. He had settled by then on a Jekyll Island plantation, now a popular attraction known as Horton House Historic Site. His remaining ties to St. Simons Island, however, included the plot in question. He fenced it in and planted a garden. But on visits to St. Simons Island, Horton stayed at the home of his friend Frances Moore.
“He encloses the whole lot and plants a garden,” Seibert said, as if I knew this already. “But at no point in time is there a mention of a house being here, or any other substantial structure.”
So who said anything about a house being there in the first place? this visiting novice wondered.
Well, hello!?!? It is all right there, Seibert said, written in red clay about halfway down the excavated wall.
Red clay does not occur naturally within the sandy soil of Coastal Georgia’s barrier islands, Seibert reminds me, his enthusiasm for archaeological sleuthing growing contagious. However, red clay was a known building material for floors and foundations. The dig in this particular hole also unearthed bits of brick tabby, the mix of oyster shells, lyme and sand so long a staple of coastal home construction, Seibert said.
“The clay is odd, we don’t have clay here,” Seibert said. “Wherever that came from, it had to be imported. So this looks like the floor of a structure. There should be no house here, and yet here we are.”
The neck of a colonial-era glass wine bottle poked neatly out of the wall on the other side of this pit. Protruding from the smoothly-carved wall like some kind of 3D abstract art piece, the bottle will remain for now. Plenty of bottles were excavated for display during previous archaeological digs, including the last significant dig in the late 1970s. It was not worth compromising the integrity of this pit’s parameters to take out one more bottle, he said.
“You don’t want to pull things out of the side of the wall and risk messing up the profile,” he explained. “It can cause issues. We just cleaned it off and took some pictures and we’re just going to leave that as it is.”
Filter cloth will be spread over the pit’s outline and a few contemporary coins will be tossed inside before the hole is refilled with dirt. This way, anyone poking around here in the future will know to pick up where Seibert and his crew left off.
This particular pit was just one of about a dozen excavated at various locations on the grounds of Fort Frederica during this recent dig, which began May 31 and wrapped up Thursday. For those like Seibert who are fluent in the language of archaeology, each hole in the ground had a story to tell.
When I arrived on this day, Seibert was standing in yet another pit nearby, excavation trowel in hand. Already, a top layer of this pit’s wall revealed the outline of a residential dirt road from the early 20th century. Below that were dark remnants of a fence post, most likely going back to the Taylor or Stevens families’ time here during the 19th Century, Seibert said.
But Seibert was digging deeper still, shaving off a thin layer from the flat bottom of the pit. An object caught his eye and he bent down to pick it up. Smiling, he handed it up to me with dirty fingers.
“It’s a piece of a pipe stem,” he said. “You would be the second person to touch that in 200 years. It’s colonial.”
Holding it in my hand, I felt an sudden immediacy and familiarity with those early European settlers from so long ago. Indeed, history is alive at Fort Frederica National Monument.