Saving grace

Nicole Isenbarger holds a large, nearly complete piece of Colonoware found on the Dean Hall tract during the construction of the future site of the DuPont factory. The artifacts will be on display at Cypress Gardens.

Grace Beahm

A one-time reptile house at Cypress Gardens reopens in a few days with a more culturally significant exhibit: artifacts from slaves who toiled nearby on Dean Hall plantation.

The Heritage Room at the picturesque Moncks Corner attraction welcomes its first guests June 7, about two years after a routine archaeological survey uncovered a historical jackpot. DuPont Cooper River had announced plans to build a Kevlar fibers plant and, as part of its site preparation work, discovered the artifacts, according to plant site manager Ellis McGaughy.

"We went into it not expecting this," he said. "We rearranged some work to allow archaeologists to do their work. When you hear archaeologists get excited, everybody else gets excited, too."

That meant bringing about 30 people from the firm Brockington and Associates out to the site just north of Cypress Gardens for a month -- about three times the normal manpower on a dig, according to archaeologists. They excavated some 125,000 artifacts primarily from the 19th century: bone buttons and silver coins, stoneware bowls and glass bottles, porcelain doll heads and pipe stems, a lamp wick and brass keys, even Native American arrowheads that the slaves collected.

Lab program manager Nicole Isenbarger said an estimated 150 slaves lived at the site in a 19-cabin village. The dig included about 58,000 pieces -- one of the largest concentrations ever discovered in the United States -- of handmade clay pottery known as Colonoware.

Slaves used Colonoware to cook one-pot meals, most of which relied on the plantation's staple: rice.

Archaeologist Ralph Bailey said the excavation team worked closely with a historian. The extensive collection of items showed that the same families lived on the land for about 150 years.

Brockington's public outreach division, The History Workshop, interpreted the artifacts to create the exhibit for Cypress Gardens. For now, it all sits in dozens of white boxes in the firm's office in a Mount Pleasant business park, ready for transport.

DuPont spent an estimated $250,000 on the dig, according to Bailey. Berkeley County, which owns and manages Cypress Gardens, funded the $100,000 renovation of the old reptile house, with an extra financial boost from private supporters.

Berkeley County Supervisor Dan Davis said the artifacts turned up at an opportune time, when officials wanted a new focus for cash-strapped Cypress Gardens.

"The animal exhibit was expensive," he said. "We were looking to eliminate that. At the same time, DuPont was preparing (the) site for Kevlar and began to discover artifacts. You would think this was all scripted, but it wasn't."

The renovation included building an heirloom garden with species that people would have planted around their homes in the mid-19th century. Staff at the attraction also relocated many of the reptiles to the "Swamparium" before closing their exhibit last year.

Cypress Gardens Director Dwight Williams said the Heritage Room will showcase a small fraction of the thousands of artifacts recovered but fill an important niche previously missing from the attraction.

"It's just one facet of the whole park story that we really hadn't been addressing before," Williams said. "People get a little frustrated. They know that Cypress Gardens is part of the plantation, but we don't have the plantation structures there any more to show them. This will help us out with that."

One of the Dean Hall buildings was moved off site to accommodate the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce in 1969, and the mansion was shipped to Beaufort and reassembled after DuPont purchased the site.

As for the Kevlar plant, where the artifact story began, it should start cranking out strong fibers in early 2012 and employ more than 100 local workers.

Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594 or abird@postandcourier.com.