Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site ‘public archaeology day’ set for Saturday

Bo Petersen/Staff Richland School District 2 third-graders Bryson Felder (left) and Zak Rast find a ceramic shard during an excavation.

SUMMERVILLE — Kelly Mielke stuck a metal probe into the ground beneath the old St. George’s Parish Church bell tower and struck something solid. The past.

An apparent 6-foot-long stone slab that the Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site volunteer probed last week might be shards of old headstones. It might be a massive grave ledger. It might be a lost wall of the church.

Whatever it turns out to be when excavated, the slab is one more clue to a mystery that might surprise people to hear:

Nobody really knows what the church looked like. No records have been found that depict it.

St. George’s was the centerpiece of one of the first inland settlements in the state, one of the treasures of its history. The remains of its bell tower are the signature image of Dorchester County, emblazoned on its seal. But the church itself is lost to time, so far.

Archaeologists are now digging to find its boundaries. On Saturday, you’re invited to help. The park holds a “public archaeology day” as church excavations get under way.

“It’s pretty cool to feel what’s under the ground without seeing it,” said Mielke, of Charleston.

The day is part of ongoing effort to make Colonial Dorchester interactive, to show the town it was and the key role it played in the state’s development. It’s part of a larger move by S.C. Parks, Recreation and Tourism to attract more tourists and revenue.

The Colonial town of Dorchester was much bigger than most people realize, a grid of streets and houses stretching from a wharf on the Ashley River to today’s Dorchester Road nearly a half-mile away.

The St. George Anglican Church was at its center and its highest point. Today, little more than the bottom half of the bell tower, a few gravestones and the walls of a tabby fort are still above ground.

Anglican churches of the time were built to be commanding sights, each with a “signature all of its own,” said Colonial Dorchester archaeologist Larry James. “If you think about power, control and trying to assert yourself on a community, the first thing you do is grab the highest ground.”

Finding the boundaries of the church and graveyard “will give us the size it really was,” James said. Archaeologists also suspect remnants of the pews, aisles and even the altar might be found.

The St. George church was the only inland church of the time with a bell tower, he said, because it was in the town center and Anglican law dictated a tower could only be built where the faithful could hear the bell rung.

The church “was a true reflection of the wealth of the parish,” James said.

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