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Sapelo Island, Georgia 2012

Thursday: September 12, 2013

Roughly every summer, UIndy teams up with the University of Kentucky to investigate Sapelo Island, Georgia, searching for the Spanish mission that was there. Sapelo is such a neat place – it is isolated from the mainland: only the few inhabitants (less than 50 according to this ESPN video, featuring Hog Hammock’s Allen Bailey of football fame), some DNR folk, and people with permission can be on the island.

When the Spanish lost the island, it became a plantation island and unfortunately was part of our slave history. The inhabitants on the island now, therefore, are almost exclusively descendants from the slaves that originally worked the fields. They have maintained aspects of their Gullah/Geechee culture and continue to experience oppression.

Recently, there has been a huge issue with virtually being taxed off the island, which is ridiculous considering there is no hospital, police, firehouse, only about one single paved road, a teensy weensy mart, small houses, some with swamps for yards, etc, etc. While we were there over the summer, actually, I asked a fellow ferry passenger if he was from Sapelo (good chances, considering the ferry isn’t public, and it was a special late night run – normally the ferry only runs twice a day). He informed me that the reason there was a late night ferry was to meet with lawyers to try to overturn the Georgian increase in taxes. That is still an on-going problem. There is a petition to be signed at MoveOn Petitions and Change.org and you can learn a little about the people from The Sapelo Project.

I feel so lucky to get to visit the island and enjoy the peaceful environment. Here are the adventures from my first visit. I will have a second post about 2013.

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We were offered a free night’s stay on the mainland the night before the ferry at a house owned by the DNR. Looks lovely, right? Never judge a house by its facade: this place was absolutely crawling with roaches. None of us slept well (some chose to sleep in the vehicles, it was that bad!)

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We had to cart all our gear on the 16 hour drive to Sapelo then get it loaded on the ferry. The ferry only runs twice a day and during our field hours, so we were basically stuck on the island until the first weekend. We needed groceries, bedding, and all.

Sapelo has several points of interest, and we eventually explored them all. I list them here in order of this sign.

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Sapelo Island points of interest.

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Only one or two roads are paved. Most look like this (even the ones in town). Actually, the ones on the north end of the island where we work is much more overgrown and the jungle is much denser.

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The Reynolds Mansion. It has a sordid history of slavery but now stands as a beautiful pavilion for weddings.

We took a trip to the lighthouse, where Bean found a geocache site. It was pretty cool but we did not have a pen to leave a note in their book, nor did we have anything to trade. It was my first introduction to actual geocaching (I have been interested in it since the 90’s), and it is on my list of things to do when I join the new era of smart phones.

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Sapelo Island Lighthouse.

There are two beaches on Sapelo (though technically Cabretta is on an island of its own, I guess). We joke about them being crowded when we see one other person. It is peacefully beautiful, and the residents are so lucky that, so far anyway, there has not been rampant development like that found on other islands (think Hilton Head).

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Bean clearing the beach.

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I rather enjoyed flipping all these horseshoe crabs over to look at their face-huggery-ness. They are quite large and creepy.

There is one town on the island – Hog Hammock. It was not always this way. Cornelia Walker Bailey outlines the history of the island and the reasons the other towns are no longer extant in her book God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man. I read it during my 2013 trip, and if you like hearing tales about family history, local myths, and the struggle that these islanders endured, you will enjoy it.

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The sign may be a bit outdated as the ESPN video cited less than 50 residents now.

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Sapelo’s public library. Dr. J. had a presentation here about our work for the public, which we attended. They have a great selection of books about the island and its people.

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Behind the library is a basketball court, where we hung out with Marvin for a bit (someone Zach had met the year before). In front is this playground, where Zach ended up with a probable concussion after the swingset leg fell directly on his head. No joke.

I kept hearing about this Low Country Boil we were going to attend. It sounded expensive at the time, and I am quite a picky eater so I was afraid it would be a waste of my money. However, I really do want to be a visitor and not a tourist, and so doing anything that links me to the actual culture of where I am is very important to me.

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Lula’s Kitchen – the site of the legendary low country boil.

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We didn’t know it yet, but we were about to embark on a magical culinary journey into the evil world of OverEating. To say it was delicious and satisfying is not enough.

The island, as mentioned, has a slavery part. Cornelia wrote beautifully on how it made her family strong – to have survived the journeys across the sea, to survive the hardships of slavery itself, to endure the separate but equal era, and to be where she is now. It is easy as a visitor to look at sites like the Reynolds Mansion and not be aware of its part in the industry, and even to look upon the remains of the Chocolate Plantation, below, and not really see it for what it is. Ruins can be beautiful when the ugly past is forgotten, eh? At least, according to Cornelia’s family tradition, the slave owners on Sapelo were nicer than elsewhere.

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Partially restored Chocolate Plantation buildings (no, cocoa was not grown here).

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Another view of Chocolate.

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The buildings were built with tabby construction – a mix of water, lime, and shell (mostly oyster) that creates a cement. Sometimes, other random bits like broken pottery would also get in the mix.

Sapelo features three major shell rings (you can read about them at the New Georgia Encyclopedia). No one knows for sure why they were created, but some hypotheses are floating around: intentional rings for ceremonial use or trash rings from circular villages. Basically, they are mounds in a circle shape build primarily with shell refuse.

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The largest shell ring on Sapelo – once upon a time a trench was dug through it. You can see the size of the mound as Zach, a fairly tall dude, walks through the trench (though the total height is a bit obscured by the lovely Spanish moss – which, incidentally, did not come from Spain).

On the island, we stay within the R.J. Reynolds Wildlife Preserve – a place where only those with authorization can be. There is no internet, unless you walk down to one of the DNR homes (which I had to several times during the 2013 trip to get my thesis completed). No tv, though Matt came with a projection screen. Poor phone service (unless you have Verizon, yay!). It does have three showers, something like 20 bunk beds across 4 bedrooms, a full kitchen with dishes, and air conditioning! And the rundown shack next door has a laundry set-up. (When I say rundown, I mean it – the door just swings on its hinges, there is one lightbulb to speak up, there are holes through the floor you must avoid to get to the washer and dryer, and you never know what animals may be lurking inside.)

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The ABAC Shack, our home during our stay.

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Breakfast, lunch, and weekends were on us, but each evening we had a communal dinner. Thus, the table, where merry eats and cheery games commenced.

Also within the Preserve is where our site is. It begins a jungle, which we hack and chop at with machetes until we can see the ground – and be assured, we do wear snake protection gear. Every day we load the truck with our gear, all the students cram in the back with it, and ride for about 20 minutes to the site. It is physically unpleasant day in and day out, but we have a lot of fun.

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Our site. You can see the tripods we made to hang our screens are built from pine trees. I had to chop one with a machete – not the easiest thing to do, never having wielded one before. I cut one down while Dr. M. and Zach cut down 5 others…

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What an opened unit looks like. We did 2×2 meters in 20 cm increments There is a soil sample column there in the top right. That comes out at the end. All those white things? Shell. Might as well be freaking rock. Ugh.

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We take what we dig out of the unit and sort it through screens. The problem with digging in a shell midden is that the shell doesn’t go through the screen…we have to hand pick it to find things that are cooler than shell.

Right around the corner from the ABAC Shack is a sand pit (which looks like a lake) and a dock. It is fun to go exploring, but you need to be watchful of things like wild pigs, wild cattle, snakes, alligators, and creepy spiders (like the banana spider).

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The sand pit – where I heard but did not see an alligator slip into the water.

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The DNR guy let us borrow his kayaks. It was my first time and I was utterly petrified of falling in the alligator infested waters (at least, that’s what I think of it as). It was a blast though.

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Even when the waterways got small and constricted, and you could not see around the bend, and you lost site of each other, and there were weird popping noises and splashes and things moving about in the water – it was awesome. What an exploration!

We also stopped by Savannah, Georgia for a day trip over one weekend. Cities really aren’t my thing, especially when I have zero money to burn. But hanging with the gang was fun, and Anna and Rachel really loved the ability to have a tasty beer in public.

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Public drinking in Savannah.

Sapelo is an amazing place, and I wish everyone could get a chance to experience it. But if that were true, it would not be amazing – development and the generic American culture would ruin what I treasure about it. For now, I will count my lucky stars that I get to visit it for archaeology!

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