Buried Charleston: Mysteries beneath your feet
When the graves of 37 of Charleston's earliest Colonial residents were found beneath the Gaillard Center construction site last month, local history buff Jordan Simmons wasn't surprised.
In the late 1960s, Simmons worked across town building the Burke High School gymnasium, where crews discovered a number of skulls with teeth, along with other bones, buried in the earth.
“There were also old pieces of wood and other material among the remains,” recalled Simmons, of Summerville.
“I know that the supervisors on the job knew about our findings because they came over and looked at what we found. We were told to continue working.”
Following is a list of some of the more distinctive finds of the last few years. And for anyone out there still hunting around for bullets, pottery and other artifacts, stay encouraged. Last month a man on Sol Legare Island reported finding a Civil War officer's saber buried point-down in the muck.
1 - Citadel graves
For decades, the largest forgotten cemetery in the city's history lay hidden beneath The Citadel's football stadium. But thanks to the sleuthing of some Confederate re-enactors and the school's planned upgrade of the Johnson Hagood site, the remains of 341 graves, plus other Civil War dead, would be found and recovered.
The larger, civilian cemetery probably contained immigrants, sailors and the poor near where Jordan Simmons worked all those years ago.
The Confederate dead, meanwhile, numbered about four dozen, and included the first crew of the submarine H.L. Hunley, who were moved to Magnolia Cemetery and reburied in a ceremony that drew thousands.
The Rebel dead faced particularly disrespectful conditions. It is believed that most of the remains were left behind when Charleston built the 21,000-seat stadium in 1948.
City Council gave the builders permission to relocate them, but in many cases only their headstones were moved.
2 - George Washington political button
In the mid 1990s, a single gold button commemorating President George Washington's 1789 inauguration was discovered in shallow dirt by a College of Charleston student at the Dill Sanctuary property on James Island. Because it represented the nation's first inauguration, experts said the button is priceless, with only a few known to exist.
About the size of a modern-day campaign button, circling the perimeter are the words “LONG LIVE THE PRESIDENT.” It probably was worn on a man's dress coat.
Washington stopped in the Charleston area in 1791 during an extended tour of the South, but it may have belonged to a Washington supporter, a Charleston friend or member of his entourage.
3 - Giant shark's teeth
Divers and diggers around the region regularly report finding gargantuan-sized shark teeth representing monsters from prehistoric eras. Young children playing in the dirt and divers hunting the Cooper River have reported coming back with hand-sized specimens, some reaching 6 inches in length.
Megalodons, giant 50-foot sharks that swam the seas when dinosaurs walked the Earth, are the accepted owners.
4 - Artesian wells
Wells that served downtown Charleston residents beginning around the mid-1800s were once a free source of fresh drinking water. In 1904 the Charleston Light and Water Company completed construction of the Goose Creek Reservoir and Hanahan Steam Pumping Station, bringing in the flow.
Today, several of the artesian well fountains remain in place, but they no longer flow artesian water. One remains at Meeting and Wentworth streets by the city fire station, and another at Rutledge Avenue and Calhoun Street.
5 - Torpedo boat burried on Tradd Street
A famous post-Civil War photograph of Charleston shows a gutted Confederate torpedo boat resting at the seawall at what is now Tradd Street downtown. Local figure Lee Spence wanted to see if it might still be there, trapped 8 feet below the asphalt.
Spence and his team used ground-penetrating radar to see if a “David,” as the low-riding, cigar shaped boats that patrolled Charleston Harbor were called, was still in the ground.
Their work may have found something. Spence reported “a pattern of anomalies under the pavement” consistent with what one would expect from a 50-foot, steam-driven, wood-hull torpedo boat. No excavations were done, since continuing the search would have meant a major removal of the neighborhood street.
One theory is that the boat was left to rot and was swallowed over when the city began expanding past the seawall around 1900.
6 - Slave tags
A product of Charleston's brutal past is now one of its most highly sought-after and more valuable collectibles.
During the 19th century, it became common practice for slave owners to begin “renting” their property to others in need of skilled labor. Slave tags soon became an accepted form of city licensing, to create revenue and to help track the movements of slaves.
The copper stamps included an issue number, date, and the occupation of the holder. Most were good for one year.
Today, the tags are highly prized, with some known to go for tens of thousands of dollars at auction. Some have been found at the bottom of wells and privies and under houses.
7 - Cannonballs downtown
With as much construction and street work as Charleston sees, it is not unheard of for fully intact projectiles from the Civil War to be uncovered periodically.
During the siege of the city, Union forces shelled Charleston for nearly 600 days, firing ordnance of various sizes, landing into homes, streets and gardens.
The most famous of the assault guns was the Swamp Angel, a 16,500-pound, 8-inch Parrott gun set up on Morris Island at Marsh Battery. The range was more than four miles.
Last year, landscapers working at a Broad Street residence unearthed a 5˝-inch cannonball while uprooting a Washingtonia Palm. Speculation is that it's older than the Civil War, and likely a British cannon- ball fired into the city during the Revolutionary War.
8 - Slave graves halted fire station
The Citadel isn't the only site of forgotten graves. At various locations around the city, including on the Medical University of South Carolina campus, long-lost burial grounds have been uncovered.
One notable find came in 1996 near the intersection of Folly and Country Club roads. Crews clearing land for a City of Charleston fire station found a graveyard thought to be for slaves who worked the nearby McLeod Plantation in the 19th century.
The site was later dedicated as Sankofa Memorial Garden, in honor of all the Africans brought to the Lowcountry against their will. Construction of the fire station was halted after surveys revealed 99 graves on the site.
9 - Mortar shells at Folly Beach
The summer of 2011 brought heavy erosion to the south end of Folly Beach, where the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission operates a public park. Tons of sand was scraped away, exposing deep cuts of the island's past. Among the items uncovered were two mortar rounds, probably from the pre- or early World War II days. The rounds were picked up and carried to a park employee by a curious island visitor. The weapons were destroyed by a bomb squad. Each of the devices was described as tubular, measuring about 2 feet in length, and as big around as a softball. How they got there remains a mystery.
And the digs go on
The archaeological excavation of the region's very first settlement still can be viewed live at Charles Towne Landing State Park in West Ashley. Inside the park, teams are examining the “Miller Site” that dates to the late 1600s, or just after the first European settlers arrived in 1670. An uncovered floor dates to at least the 1690s. It is made of lime and crushed oyster shells, and measures 3 inches thick and roughly 12 by 15 feet.
Compiled by Schuyler Kropf