Archaeological Dig at Hobcaw House

Hobcaw House occupies a bluff overlooking Winyah Bay on the sprawling 16,000 acre property that is Hobcaw Barony. The Georgian-style home was built in 1930 with easy access to deep water, and at one of the highest points in the property – a whopping 27 feet above sea level. Twenty seven feet above sea level may not seem like a staggering height, but in the marshy coastal lands prevalent across the Lowcountry, a mere two feet can make a world of difference when the tide comes in, or when the swamps flood. The high ground and easy access to deep water made this area ideal for settlement, and it was used for protection against rising waters long before Hobcaw House was built.

The front of Hobcaw House as seen from the pier.

The front of Hobcaw House as seen from the pier.

The Donaldson home before it burned in 1929. Endearingly referred to as the "Old Relic" by the Baruchs.

The Donaldson home before it burned in 1929. Endearingly referred to as the “Old Relic” by the Baruches.

A white two-story wooden home once stood in place of Hobcaw House. Known as Friendfield house, it was built in 1890 by the Donaldson family and witnessed the decline of the plantation period before burning down in 1929. Before the rise of the rice culture along the Southern coast, the area surrounding Hobcaw House was utilized by some of the first European settlers, and maybe even some of the first Spanish explorers under the leadership of Lucas Vasquez de Allyon.[1]

Historians and archaeologists have coveted the historical secrets residing within the land and soil in the grounds surrounding Hobcaw House. In 1991, an archaeologist from Coastal Carolina University hoped to uncover evidence of Spanish occupation. Although he was not granted access to Hobcaw House, “James L. Michie led a project from Coastal Carolina University to investigate the shores of Winyah Bay,”[2] a short distance away from the Hobcaw House property. Though Michie’s project didn’t yield evidence of a Spanish colony, he did find 18th century artifacts and evidence of European colonists.

Dr. Karen Smith, Dr. Keith Stephenson, and a team of archaeologists from SCIAA (South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology) were recently granted access to conduct a number of shovel tests across the property immediately surrounding Hobcaw House. Early shovel tests revealed artifacts dating back to the 19th century. These historic artifacts showed evidence of a massive fire – nails, bricks, and glass were burnt and charred. Although archaeologists don’t typically like to speculate, it can be assumed that these artifacts are from the wooden house that burned in 1929. The team found features in the soil as well, materials which cannot be removed from the site. Features appear when the soil has been disturbed by some form of culturally historic activity, leaving behind evidence of a structure.

One of the features discovered by the archaeologists. You can see the discoloration in the soil caused by a disturbance of culturally historic activity.

One of the features discovered by the archaeologists. You can see the discoloration in the soil extending down from the top of the hole. Features are caused by a disturbance from culturally historic activity.

According to Dr. Stephenson, the features they found are probably European and date back to the 1900s. The difference between European and Indigenous features can often be determined by their shape. Typically European features are square in shape because Europeans would cut trees into rectangular/ square posts, whereas Native Americans left the wood in the round shape of the tree. Artifacts in the soil also make speculating (however much archaeologists hate to do it) a little easier. The shovel tests in which the features were discovered contained both nails and bricks. One of the features also showed evidence of a fire, as it contained traces of soot in the disturbed soil.

PHN_029 - feature 2

You can see the discoloration of the soil from the second feature at the bottom of the hole just above the brick and extending up the side.

Dr. Smith and her team also found a number of artifacts dating back to the prehistoric period – prehistoric meaning the period before methods of writing and record keeping existed. These artifacts provide evidence of Native American settlement. Whether an artifact is prehistoric or historic can be determined by where in the soil it’s located. For those of us who aren’t archaeologists, there’s a simple way to differentiate between historic and prehistoric artifacts – historic artifacts are found in the dark grey/black soil about 30/40 centimeters from the surface. Prehistoric soil is the lighter yellow-ish layer that appears under the darker grey/black soil, starting at about 30/40 centimeters and extending all the way down. Prehistoric artifacts are found between 30/40 centimeters to 80/90 centimeters below the surface.

A variety of prehistoric pottery was discovered around the grounds of Hobcaw House, proving that the area was once settled and utilized by Native Americans. The oldest type of pottery found was Thoms Creek incised pottery. This type of pottery is characterized by incised lines carved with a sharp tool, and dates back to 2,000 BC to 1,000 BC. The second type of pottery discovered was fabric impressed pottery. Dating as early as 1,000 BC, the pottery sherd (or fragment) is distinguishable by the fabric design impressed upon its surface while it dried before be being fired.

Two fabric impressed sherds that fit together. A truly exciting find!

Two fabric impressed sherds – distinguishable by the fabric textures decorating their surface – that fit together. A truly exciting find!

The final type of pottery discovered was shell scraped pottery, and is found only on the coast. Native Americans used shells to scrape and smooth pottery as it was made, leaving behind characteristic markings. Evidence of the use of shells can be found on pottery ranging from 2,000 BC up to 1500 AD.[3]

Three types of pottery sherds are visible.

Three types of pottery sherds were found in the same surface test. The top left is shell scraped, the bottom left is fabric impressed, and the bottom right is Thoms Creek.

The variety of sherds discovered proves that Native Americans inhabited the area long before European contact. These pottery sherds provide valuable evidence of a history that is often overlooked or ignored because it was almost entirely eradicated during the colonization of America and Westward expansion.


[1]Brockington, Lee G. Plantation between the Waters: A Brief History of Hobcaw Barony. Charleston, SC: History, 2006. Print. 15

[2] Brockington, Lee G. Plantation between the Waters: A Brief History of Hobcaw Barony. Charleston, SC: History, 2006. Print. 16

[3] If you’d like to learn more about the types of South Carolina pottery, we recommend visiting

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  1. Pingback: The Search for San Miguel de Gualdape | Making History Together

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